Cancer: A Battle for Positive Action?
The broadcaster Jenni Murray has objected to descriptions of cancer as a battle – one which the patient is often expected to fight by means of positive thinking. She argued that the disease is either successfully or unsuccessfully treated, and no battle is required (Independent, Tuesday 22 May, 2012). I, too, found the ‘battle’ metaphor, along with ubiquitous commands to ‘be positive’ about my situation, deeply unhelpful. In the early days of my illness, I was paralysed by fear, wondering whether I would live to see the ‘best before’ dates on the food in my kitchen, or whether my ‘long life’ batteries would have a longer life than I would. Insult was added to frightening diagnosis by the thought that, in failing to fight the battle, I was, at best, a feeble human being, and, at worst, adversely affecting my chances of recovery.
Whether or not positive thinking affects the prognosis – and opinions seem to differ on this – there is a battle for cancer patients to fight, but this not a battle with the disease itself; it is a battle to live a meaningful life in the face of physical frailty and a heightened level of uncertainty. And this is a battle which can be fought with positive action – which might, in due course, lead to more positive thinking.
There is already plenty of advice about the benefits of smoking cessation, exercise (where possible, walking enables you to vary the length and pace of your activity), a regular sleep pattern, and a healthy diet (where the advice is sometimes contradictory; the key point is, perhaps, to eat a wide variety of foods, and not too much of any one of them). I offer further suggestions here, with thanks for some of them to the relatives, friends and medical staff who have supported me in my own ‘battle’:
- Focus on activities which you can still manage, and which you enjoy and/or give you a sense of purpose.
- If you can, finish projects which you have already started. Either focus on one project and keep going until you have finished it, or select two projects of different kinds and try to do some of each every day. If you are very unwell, select a single project which doesn’t require much concentration – sorting out photos, perhaps – and aim to do at least 10 minutes (or longer, depending on your state of health) each day. You will then make progress, even if it is slow.
- Focus on the process rather than the outcome. If you make a mistake, see it as part of the process which will eventually enable you to finish the project. Thus, precious effort is not wasted.
- Try something new. You might not feel able to take up a difficult hobby or attend an evening class, but you might be able to try a different type of television programme or book.
- If you can, do something which requires the use of both hands – e.g. a craft activity, or playing a musical instrument. This uses both sides of the brain and might improve your mental state.
- Plan your television viewing and/or radio listening. Obtain a copy of the programme listings and choose programmes which are likely to lift your spirits. In the early days of my diagnosis, I found daytime television programmes about attractive houses and exotic holidays depressing as these, it seemed to me, were no longer things to which I could aspire. On the other hand, programmes featuring hospitals, illness or death seemed all too relevant to my circumstances when I really needed to focus on living each day to the full. Remember that even comedy programmes sometimes deal with subjects which might be upsetting to those who are dealing with a serious illness; I once began watching an episode of QI, only to find that the subject for that week was ‘death’. By contrast, I found that programmes about historical subjects or landscapes – e.g. Coast, or The Dales – were often both interesting and attractive to look at.
- Choose programmes which run on a regular basis, to give your life some structure. If you are unable to work, or follow your usual daily/weekly routine, one day can seem much like the next; having a sense that days are different makes life seem more ‘normal’ and gives you something to look forward to. Beware of soap operas, which might deal with depressing topics; a period drama, or a reality television show, even if these are not normally to your taste, might be more cheerful.
- If you can’t concentrate on a film, watch boxed sets of shorter programmes which you enjoy; I found Dad’s Army and ’Allo ’Allo particularly helpful.
- Consider listening to the Daily Service on BBC Radio 4 Longwave or DAB. Even if some of the religious language means little to you, remember that there are different ways to understand the divine, and that even the atheist or borderline believer might be able to gain something from the teachings of religion – as Alain de Botton and Richard Holloway have recently shown.
- Even if you don’t normally read for pleasure, try different kinds of literature to find something which you like. A friend of mine in similar circumstances read detective novels. I’m not keen on these – but short stories by P. G. Wodehouse passed the time in hospital waiting rooms.
- Read about ways in which you might be able to help yourself, but don’t become too obsessed with finding out about your condition; you need to focus on doing meaningful things which will help you to feel reasonably cheerful.
- Fill a container with plants which are easy to care for (e.g. hardy geraniums or impatiens New Guinea) – or ask someone to do it for you – and place it where you will see it regularly – e.g. next to your front door.
- Find some photographs which represent happy memories and keep them where you can see them regularly – e.g. by your bed.
- Download some cheerful songs and burn them to a CD or play them on your electronic device.
- Try relaxation CDs. Whether or not relaxation improves the prognosis, it can help you to feel better on a daily basis.
- List things which you have achieved/enjoyed/appreciated – to remind you when you are feeling down.
- If relatives and friends send you cards and letters, keep them in a small box file. Don’t have them around the house indefinitely to remind you that you are ill, but look at them when you want to remember that people are concerned about you.
- Try to maintain contact with friends and relations – although it might be best to avoid those with a tendency to talk about things which you find difficult. Inevitably, some people will say insensitive things, but try not to dwell on them.
- Make a list of things which others could do, so that when they say ‘If there’s anything I can do …’ you can make some constructive suggestions.
- Even if you cannot manage a long outing, a short outing to a pub or a local tea room might still be feasible. Garden centres often have tea rooms and, if you enjoy shopping, some sell a range of products in addition to the usual plants and garden tools.
© Elizabeth Burns, December 2013