Cancer cannot take this away

Image credit: pixelsaway / 123RF Stock Photo Used with permission.

Image credit: pixelsaway / 123RF Stock Photo
Used with permission.

Yesterday I was in enough pain to take the stronger medication for it. I was also sad and upset about several unrelated bits of bad news that I’ve received recently. I was feeling alone and needy and, truth be told, more than a little sorry for myself. I spent most of the day in bed, feeling drugged and loopy and groggy and dozing off and on, feeling needy and weepy when I was awake. It was not a good day.

Today I woke up and I’m in enough pain to take the stronger medication for it. I am still sad and upset by the bad news. I am still alone and I still need help with simple tasks. But I am not feeling needy, I am up at the computer writing this post, and I am having a friendly chat with my home help, L, who is here working her magic.

So what is the difference between yesterday and today? Yes, my home help L the wonder-worker is here, but the truth is that hours before her arrival I was up and showered and dressed in clean clothes and sitting at the computer doing my sorely neglected email. What changed?

The pain didn’t change. The fatigue didn’t change. The cancer didn’t go away. The sleep issues were not resolved. Why am I up and smiling today? I think it’s the A-word: attitude. Before I went to sleep last night I made a decision to change my attitude.

It’s as simple as it sounds and as difficult as it sounds. I wrote a short update in a Facebook cancer support group to which I belong, and I was complaining about everything from bone tumor pain to mosquito bites. I knew that I would get lots of “poor you!” and hugs and supportive comments and a joke or two in response. But by the end of the my update I found myself writing:

The best thing on earth is that tomorrow is a new day! And also I was able to get up and make some food and drink. And my home help is coming tomorrow. So I should just get off the pity pot and make a gratitude list. 

Damn. I hate it when I talk myself out of my moods! 

I somehow allowed myself to change the focus, to look in a different direction, to change my attitude. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

When I was an undergraduate (a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) I was profoundly impressed by Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. This is one of the books that changed my life. In particular, this: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

That blew me away forty-some odd years ago and it still does. No matter what cancer takes away from me. No matter what bad news I receive, no matter what problems I face, I have the freedom to choose how I relate to it. This doesn’t mean mindlessly smiling through a crap storm (remember – not recognizing reality is insane), but it means that I can choose to collapse under it, to fight it, to accept it, to try to change the circumstances, to move out from under it. I can choose to identify myself with the crap storm or to remember that it is separate from me, it is not me. As a religious woman, I can choose to put my faith in the hands of the Creator, remembering that in my religious tradition God helps those who help themselves.

Whatever I choose–even if I choose through inaction–it is my choice. That is the power that is left to me, “the last of the human freedoms”, and when I choose to exercise it I reclaim some of my personhood. My personhood, the choice of my attitude: cancer cannot take that away from me.

Don’t forget: Anyone who is affected by metastatic breast cancer is invited to submit a post for me to publish during October. If you are interested, please contact me at the email in the sidebar or tell me in the comments. We want to hear your voice!

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38 thoughts on “Cancer cannot take this away

  1. Thank you T.K. – I have been on a bit of a ‘poor me’ bender recently too, (surgery delayed amongst other things) and I agree that the attitude that I chose to wear is that which defines me, not the events that surround me – unless I let them!
    Peace, prayers and blessings
    Maxine

  2. That phrase about God helping those who help themselves has turned me around, too, which is so strange because who doesn’t pray for help and hope it will come without doing more than praying? But it helps me, too. Thanks for the reminder.

    I am sad to hear about the pain level that you’re dealing with these last few days. Pain changes my personality like a light switch. Until cancer I was so lucky. The worst thing I had ever experienced was dental treatment pain. I think sometimes of what it was like before I had such a close acquaintance with pain, and I wonder what I ever had to worry about back then. Then I think about my new experiences with pain and wonder how I will handle my future, too. If I stay positive, will I stay positive? If your answer is yes, then I am hopeful that mine will be, too.

    Thanks for being honest about the challenges and not simply sharing the positivity. It means a lot to hear people you admire say that they have bad days spent in bed. My aunt had mets for more than a decade. She also was a positive person, but many of her days were extremely challenging. If she had not spoken about it, I never would have understood the difference between bone pain and other types of pain or how often the painkillers for bone pain just put her to sleep because our medicines do not make it possible for many to get relief and still function. Your willingness to share your experiences is a tremendous gift to others. Thank you. And I hope today is a better day for you!

    • Thank you for the careful reading and thoughtful response.

      When I started blogging I decided that I would always be honest in what I write or there would be no point. That is one reason that I chose to be anonymous. Anonymity gives me the freedom to be very honest without concern for my reputation or the reputation of the organization I work for.

      Today is turning out great, thanks! It always amazes me that I can have the same level of pain on different days and it affects me in different ways. A lot depends on attitude; I’m sure of it!

  3. Hi TK,

    Thank you for helping me explore how I relate to pain and attitude. I so appreciate your ability to both be with what’s happening for you and to be present for transformation – a both-and rather than either-or approach to living with cancer and cancer pain.

    I’ve found this advice from the Buddha particularly helpful, “Pain is a physical sensation; suffering is how we choose to experience it.” I can better work with pain when I remember that I’m making my change for well-being as a personal, soul, social and spiritual commitment for health in the midst of illness. While it’s sometimes hard to soften to the pain that comes with advanced cancer, when I imagine myself embracing a suffering baby, I can bring kindness and caring to a hurting body.

    I’ve included two more valuable reflections below.

    Sending warmest healing regards,
    Stephanie
    http://www.mylifeline.org/stephaniesugars

    From Zen Buddhist priest and chaplain, Joan Halifax comes this verse for meditation on pain:

    “May I observe my pain with equanimity. May I be present for my pain and suffering. May I accept things as they are. May I have the strength to face my situation. May I accept my pain, knowing that I am not my pain, not my body, not my illness. Even though I am in pain, may I handle it. May I realize that this pain is not permanent. May I be aware of my pain, knowing that I am not my pain. ”

    And from an empathetic doctor in the UK comes this long reflection on pain that includes many resources:
    How Doctors Respond to Chronic Pain
    http://abetternhs.wordpress.com/2013/09/07/pain/

  4. Thanks for the reminder. I’ve been having a couple of challenging days as I am very torn on what treatment to take. I really feel that none of the options are good even though two of them could eradicate the cancer. The side effects scare the crap out of me! Not making a decision is a decision unto itself. Thanks again and I hope you continue to have a great day.

    • Hi Nelson,

      It’s such a difficult place to be, isn’t it? The side effects are scary; no two ways about it. I found it stupid that just when I was completely overwhelmed with the news of a new cancer diagnosis and an incredibly steep learning curve I was called upon to make an “informed decision” about treatment. My decision was not informed, and there is no way it could have been.

      I know I’m not much help, but I’m with you in spirit.

      Lots of hugs!

  5. Knot, I think what is profound about shifting our attitude is that it doesn’t mean being in denial. I don’t think we can truly benefit from shifting our attitude and perspective until and unless we honestly acknowledge the crap we are dealing with in our lives. Otherwise, if we just brush it under the rug or pretend it’s not happening, the attitude we choose to have will be hollow, just a mask we wear, and whatever we’ve not acknowledged or validated for ourselves will just come up and bite us later on. That’s the real power of changing our attitude, that we make the choice with full knowledge of whatever heartache and misery befalls us. That’s why you are having a great day, because you are, first and foremost, honest. Much love to you. Your wisdom is always appreciated. xoxo, Kathi

    • That is a really important point and one I didn’t stress enough, Kathi. Thank you for bringing it up.

      Just being a bliss ninny and pretending everything is hunky dory is not an attitude change; it’s just a blindfold.

      Thanks again for taking the trouble to write this important comment!

  6. Funny that you talk about the bliss ninny and everything is hunky dory. I am the one person in my life who doesn’t do that, all my friends and family are the bliss ninnys!! If I even mention the fact that I’ll be happy to be around in 5 or 10 years, I get the pat answer “Oh…don’t think like that, of course you’ll be around!!” Truth is…no one knows if they will be around in 5 or 10 years, I’ve just accepted it. To deny that is…well…being a bliss ninny. Knowing that I may not be around in 5 years, tomorrow, heck, even in an hour, makes me appreciate every moment I have.

  7. I LOVE this entry! And I am SO stealing the quote you referenced. This was the effect day for you to post this, and the perfect day for me to read it. Thanks, My friend! XOXO

  8. KT I also think that Kathi’s point about acknowledging the pain and all of the issues that are weighing heavy on your mind is so important if you are ever going to be able to feel a shift in attitude. Honestly, terrible pain is extremely uncomfortable and it takes time until your body and mind can even think straight to have the refreshing attitude change. It’s all very understandable. I hate that you have to be in pain and I just keep hoping that you have a great pain specialist that can prescribe meds in the right doses that can rid you of the pain and not make you feel so numbed out. Meanwhile I love your attitude no matter if it’s up or down, you are very special and you deserve happiness. xoxox-Susan

  9. dear KT.

    i loved your post because you were so careful to say that the pain hadn’t changed, but that YOU made a change, and it was with your attitude. having that power within ourselves is a gift, and a skill. and acquiring the skill may seem insurmountable at times, and often is a struggle, especially with awful physical pain, and more so if the people around you haven’t experienced that same degree of pain, thus making one feel isolated and not always taken seriously enough.

    i think we often forget that goals that are worthwhile don’t just drop out of the sky – we really need to PRACTICE asserting the choices we have and taking the time to find our way through to it very mindfully and understand that it’s not magical thinking, it’s something that needs hard work to achieve. we may not succeed as quickly as we would like to, but holding on to our resolve and not giving up will hopefully, eventually bring us closer and closer to being able to attain what we have put our efforts into. i also think that sometimes, even the practice element may need some tweaking now and then.

    i offer up these thoughts, KT, not from suffering physical pain, but more from the excruciating, and never-ending sources of emotional and psychic and spiritual pain as i go through the grieving process of losing hugh so suddenly. and i must say that i really do feel that at least sometimes i can choose to assert attitudes to help me navigate this torturous road. i have great hope that i can continue to use what i have practiced to assuage some of the pain, but i realize that i find myself in a constant battle with the BOSS, which is grief. i would love to be able to take it’s power down, way down, but sometimes i cannot; i am at it’s mercy. but when, once again, i can turn outward after a particularly devastating bout and try to think of what i CAN do to change my attitude, and chose to be happy and content, i still know full well that grief is a constant and i will have to re- adjust and adapt my ways of coping with it.

    i am so glad that you are finding ways to overcome the devastation of profound pain, and i commend you for sharing this part of your story, so honest and inspiring to others who walk in your shoes. and even though you have done well and feel better while asserting the choices, the attitude you chose to help you, i am also hoping that soon something will come along to alleviate your pain altogether, so that you can function much better and do so many of the things that would make you feel content and happy – you deserve to be comfortable and be able to live pain-free with all your faculties in working order.

    sending you many gentle and warm hugs, lots of love, and the light of hope,

    Karen, TC

    • Dear Karen, TC –

      You just keep keeping on, even in the midst of your horrendous grief. I bless you for that. Wish I could alleviate your pain, but from watching my daughter twice, I know I can’t. There is no way but trudging through the best you can.

      • my dear Lois,

        thank you for your kind words. trudging through is a good description, and it’s true – it’s the only thing we can do. I hope your sweet daughter is finding her way through such devastating loss – twice, no less, and I cannot imagine how difficult that has been for you as her mother.

        much love and light, XOXOXOXO

        Karen

    • What a touching comment, Karen! Thank you for sharing so openly and letting us in to your deepest self. Yes, it is a skill and skills need to be learned and practiced… but it’s possible, and that encourages me. 🙂

  10. I’m going through a similar process, an attitude shift. It’s amazing how freeing it is, even when circumstances stay the same. And I started reading Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” We’re on the same page, no pun intended. Love and light to you, dear KT.

  11. Thank you for this wonderful message.
    When I was in college, I also read “Man’s Search for Meaning.” I still remember that quote after all these years, not word for word, but the basic message.
    So many times I feel upset when people start telling me “you can beat this if you keep a positive attitude.” But, my attitude cannot change cancer, it can’t even remove side effects from treatments, just like his attitude could not deliver Frankl from the concentration camp. But, this isn’t talking about changing your circumstances through your attitude. What it did for Frankl, for you, and can do for all of us is allow us to transcend what circumstances do to us, to stay in control of the only thing that ultimately we can.
    The apostle Paul said he had learned “in all things to be content.” I definitely have my pity parties, I have to relearn daily to count my blessings. Joy, gratitude, peace come from within us, and from God, not our circumstances. And it is a lesson that seems to need to be relearned not once, but over and over.
    May you continue to be blessed through this attitude of gratitude and faith.

  12. I do my best to make a list of the small things I’m grateful for, even if it’s just the drugs.

    But still, I do give myself those pity days, as long as they don’t go on too long. Sometimes pulling the covers up over my head for a bit is what I need at that point.

    • Thanks, Susan. I think you’re right; sometimes we need to just let ourselves feel it. And I know you’re right about a gratitude list. It’s one of my favorite tricks.

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