Spoiler Alert: Learn Resilience

So, you are diagnosed with cancer or perhaps wanting to support someone with cancer.  How are you responding to it?  Are you satisfied with your response?    Is it still going on?   Is it difficult?  Most get through such times but it is not without a toll.  Some struggle terribly while those highly resilient folks come out on the other end stronger, happier and almost no worse for wear.  No matter where you might find yourself on that spectrum of cancer experience, you can learn from those who do well and dramatically enhance how you manage such challenges.

Improving a response to cancer is a lot about building resilience.  If you are a patient, it is critical.  If you want to constructively support a patient, the things you do to assist in building resilience can be incredibly valuable and durable well-beyond a cancer challenge.  As important, if you have children, you likely want them to be highly resilient so when they face serious challenges, they can not only survive but thrive. In other words, most folks want their children to quickly turn adversity into their opportunity.  Learning about resilience is central to the effort.  What is resilience?  Where does it come from?  How to you improve it?  Just of few of the questions Patient Ahead seeks to address.

The learning process can begin by understanding the “in-born” resilience that you were provided at birth and then making your own efforts to make it grow.  And yes, you can manage such challenges with inspirational levels of strength and confidence.  Really.

A Short Story

Let me share a story.  I had finally been discharged from the hospital and began a lengthy process of very frequent outpatient visits at my oncology facility.  One visit, when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself having been nearly obliterated by chemotherapies and drained of most of my physical strength, I made my way to a scheduled appointment at my clinic.  As I sat in the waiting area, I noticed another patient with the same disease.  I had seen him before.  He was accompanied by a lady and they sat there all cheery and chatty.  Out of nowhere, he caught me looking at them and politely asked, how was I doing?  I responded that I felt sick, weak and very tired.  He seemed to smile with his eyes (he also wore a mask) and his tone was quite empathetic, then said that he “fully understood”.   A discussion followed as we waited and I learned that he had the exact same treatment, in the very same hospital, at almost the exact same time-period, as me.  He also had constant diarrhea, described himself as being severely physically weak, and noted that he was unsure of what the clinical future would hold for him.  Yet, he seemed so incredibly happy in comparison to my rather pathetic level of self-sorrow.  I did not get a sense that he was struggling.  What did he have that I did not?  What water was he drinking?  In fact, he seemed to be thriving with the cancer challenge as did his wife, and when we discussed the future, he was almost eager to discover what that future would bring.  Why did he seem to thrive at the challenge while I floundered?  The quick answer:  Resilience.    Clearly, he was not going to be a victim of the disease.  His behavior was dramatically different than mine.  I was inspired.  If he could have that kind of approach, I could, I thought.  Spoiler alert:  I was right.


What is Resilience?

Resilience boils down to bouncing back from adversity.  Dealing with it well.  How fast that happens, how difficult it is to emotionally bounce back, and how much distress you go through during the process are all variables you can work on.

If you are interested in building-up your resilience, recognize that you were born with enormous levels of natural resilience.  Parts and pieces are already in you.  Most folks think of themselves as resilient to begin with.  That’s good.  Pat yourself on the back and say, “Let’s make it better”.  Cancer patients need to be interested in building resilience because many find that their current level of resilience is just not doing the job. It’s a struggle.  If you are at all like me, you are not alone.  Time and time again I meet patients with the exact same struggle.  I have yet to meet a cancer patient who did not feel some sort of a sense of shock, fear, anger, emotion, disappointment, depression, or worse.  So, let’s do something about that. One key focus of this website is to help build-up your resilience.  The stronger your resilience, the easier the road ahead will be.  This applies not only to dealing with cancer but any challenge. Of interest, by building-up your own resilience you will inspire others and set a notable example for family members and friends to follow.   I have yet to find a downside to understanding and building my resilience.

Obstacles Abound

As I mentioned, you are born with resilience.  Everyone has resilience.  Yet, as we grow older we pick up other (external) things in our minds which can negatively influence our resilience.   If you are human, you have picked up some of these negative influences. For example, you might find yourself ruminating on, “why me”? Or, perhaps you feel like you are somewhat a victim of the disease.  If I had a dollar for every person who told me how sorry they were that I came down with leukemia.  They meant no harm, of course, and I am thrilled that people cared.  But, what was happening was I was convincing myself that I was a victim at some level.

These are just two of many examples of how external factors that somehow you picked-up along the path of life can work against your capacity for resilience.  To be very frank, even if technically you are a victim of some atrocious act or circumstance, the action you are encouraged to pursue at this moment is not about blame or self-pity but about what you are going to do about it?   Blame, fault, anger, depression will not provide you the fuel you will need to bounce back.  It is totally understandable that you have these reactions to cancer.  But for now, let’s just work on responses that will make the process easier.  Commit to building your resilience.

Ok.  I know.  Easier said than done.  But is it?  After meeting the resilient man in the waiting room, I was so inspired that I tried my own little experiment.  Each week, I would go to the clinic for a round of lab tests and my physical exams.  (FYI – This went on for over a year) I would see different people in the waiting room.  Each week, I intentionally exhibited a demeanor of a more positive patient much like the man I had met earlier.  Of interest, my fellow patients could not see my face as I always wore a mask.  But I did pleasantly greet people, I dropped the victim profile and quit with the self-absorbed poor-me persona.  I would ask how people were doing? I would engage in positive conversation. Two things happened.  First, as I deliberately changed my outward behavior, my thinking changed.  You heard it – my behavior changed my thinking, not the other way around.  I started by changing my behavior.  Second, I noticed that my external behavior could positively affect the mood of everyone in the room.  Who knew resilience was contagious?  Very quickly I noticed that this also changed the reaction of my family.  It was a win-win-win.

Flounder or Flourish

For a second, forget the biology of cancer and all the things that you cannot control.  The biology and pathology part is going to play out one way or another, hopefully for the better.  Instead, focus for a minute or two on what you can control . . . that being your mental and emotional responses to adversity.  Have you ever heard stories of people who got through a tremendous challenge, somehow survived, and afterwards felt stronger, better and they seemed to have been invigorated from the experience?   We all have.  Such stores are everywhere.   They inspire us.  What these people seem to have is an ability to look back on their experience and learn from it in positive ways.  The stories are exciting to listen to and quite amazing to understand.  For some of those remarkable people, even when they were in the experience they had moments of incredible levels of resilience, greatness and inspiring strength.  In other words, during their challenge they exhibited notable resilience.  Now do this.  Imagine yourself finished with your cancer challenge-at-hand.  Imagine yourself looking-back on the experience.  What do you want to look-back on?  How would you like to feel about how you handled it?  Really, give it some thought for a minute or two.

If you are like most folks, this imaginary helicopter view of being in future yet looking back is a bit hard to do.  Try this: Think of the following three traits that are already inside you.

  • Your sense of humor
  • Your willingness to help another person
  • A relationship you have with someone that is important to you

Now, take each one of these three traits noted above and imagine yourself looking-back on the cancer experience.  It is easier.  For example, you may find that you want to see yourself having a sense of humor over some aspect of what is happening.  A good laugh here or there is useful.  You might want to remember helping others such as a family member or a fellow patient despite being in the middle of your own challenge.  Or, you might want to remember connecting with someone you care about in an authentic fashion during the adversity.  Perhaps you want to set a good example for that person.  Great memories.  So, go ahead and create them. Do it.

These three traits, (humor, helpfulness and relationships) are but a few of the many internal traits within you (building-blocks) that can feed and build your resilience.  In other words, you already have an enormous amount of building blocks within you for improving your resilience.  You were born with most of them.  The suggestion is that it is time to nurture them, intentionally and purposefully.

What are some other traits beyond humor?  Make your own list… think about your own skills or background whether good or bad.  Determination, spirituality, creativity, ingenuity, your ability to learn, willingness to help others, imagination, your skill at “reading people”, intuition, your ability to adapt, technical skills, etc.  The suggestion here is that if you or someone you care about wants to flourish from the cancer experience as opposed to flounder, then seize some of your characteristics and use them to build-up your resilience.

Leap Ahead of Adversity

A whole lot can be learned from other patients.  In one of my visits to the laboratory at the clinic I met a young mother who had a very young child.  She was being treated for breast cancer.  Her husband had flaked-out and she was alone with a very curious 5-year old.  As the young child investigated every item in the magazine rack as well as every bottle of hand sanitizer on the tables, we chatted.  When I asked her what drove her each day, she glanced over to the child grinning and said, “him”.  The child was her fuel to move forward and stay positive.  She knew things would never be the same for her in many physical ways but it was quite clear she was determined to be stronger and better than ever before.  She was also clearly grateful that she had such an important bundle of hope at her side.  Stunning how one little person can cause another to leap ahead of adversity and meet it head-on.  But perhaps more stunning was that this young mom had unmistakably decided to be resilient in every facet of her life.  Made me think of what else can cause a person to leap ahead of adversity?  My next question was what was holding me back from doing the same?  The next post will consider the answers to these questions.

Meanwhile, it is suggested you make a short list of 7 or 8  characteristics or traits that you possess that in the past have fueled your life.