There are many different ways of coping with stress, traumatic events, and adversity. Some are destructive (alcohol, drugs) and others are productive (prayer, exercise, meditation); the former is running away from the challenge, the latter is confronting it. The former depletes your strengths; the latter builds on them through a healthy mind and body. Although productive methods tend to focus on surviving cancer and being hopeful, they can also be effective tools for letting go of negative feelings such as anger, guilt, and sadness. Studies have shown that positive actions lead to better outcomes, improved survival, and a reinvestment in the things that bring joy in life. Normalizing feelings — good and bad — helps patients deal with change.
Patients who lose their coping skills or no longer work can digress into depression and hopelessness. They can lose interest in what was pleasing in the past and find cancer has stolen their joy for life. They can lose their sense of identity, which raises concerns among family and spouses who, in turn, become frightened of what they see in their loved ones. At these times, the whole family/friend system needs help with redefining who they are and learning how to discover new meaning in life. Social workers can help patients’ loved ones rely on hope and spirituality simply by becoming role models for them.
I’ve discerned transition steps that can help those impacted by cancer move on with life. Exploring what they are thankful for can give them respite from the struggle and contributes to a more positive attitude. Humor, even the self-deprecating kind, is an underestimated tool. It can challenge a negative mindset and make others in the room comfortable with your cancer. Prayer — religious or universal — can lead to a spiritual awakening.
Recognizing that none of this comes easy is important to validate the uncertainty patients and caregivers are confronting. Sometimes a healthy dose of denial can go a long way to providing respite from trauma. Looking at their life from the perspective of a survivor, incorporating joyful events to stay aware of the positive things in life, and taking one day at a time to enjoy life with loves ones, family, and friends is so important for patients. It is a gift they can share with each other.
Nurses, doctors, social workers, and the rest of the medical team and facility staff at treatment centers have the ability to bring patients hope, gratitude, peace, and love. All are part of spirituality, a force that recognizes us as individual human beings while keeping us connected as a community.
Sonia Pacheco is the Hispanic Outreach Program Coordinator at CancerCare.