60% of cancer patients in America are cured. This means that every year several hundred thousand people become “survivors.” However, to be “cured” of cancer is not that same as being made whole. Cancer afflicts not only our bodies, but permanently changes our souls.
The Greek historian Timaeus of Tauromenium wrote a fable, which speaks to us still. 2400 years ago, there dwelled a King, Dionysius II of Syracuse. Dionysius was wealthy, powerful and surrounded by the best things in life. Among his followers was a courtier by the name of Damocles. Damocles was constantly flattering the King. Annoyed by constant pandering, the King made Damocles an offer. For one day, Damocles could switch places with the King and enjoy all his luxury. Damocles was thrilled and accepted the offer.
The two exchanged and Damocles began to feast and bask in the admiration of the servants. Then he looked up and saw a sword. The massive, sharpened, gleaming sword, was suspended directly above his head. It was held by single horsehair, wrapped around the hilt. Damocles mouth grew dry, his stomach turned and the luxuries lost their luster. He begged the King to be relieved of this gift. The King relented and allowed him to leave. However, Dionysius reminded Damocles to remember the fear in which every great man lives.
Cicero asks, in the Tusculan Disputations; “Does not Dionysius seem to have made it sufficiently clear that there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms?”
For many people who are affected by cancer, even if cured, the disease is like this Damocles Sword. Despite completed treatments, normal tests, reassurance and the passage of time there can be continued dread. It is a peculiarity of the human condition that such a terrible event imprints deeply in our minds. Why is it so difficult to recover?
We habitat a modern society, but we are only a few thousand years out of the jungle. For most of the evolutionary history of man, we lived short, mean lives. Survival was often a matter of traumatic life and death. We died suddenly, frequently in the teeth of a beast or perhaps after a brief painful illness. If we lived, the threat was gone. We had no need to learn how to emotionally cope with a continuing uncontrollable threat such as cancer. A threat, which is invisible, and feels like might comeback at anytime. We never evolved the emotional skill to be “a survivor.”
In 2011 when we are diagnosed with cancer, we respond emotionally, just as if we are still in the wild. We summon anger, fear and energy to “fight” the disease. In a “fight or flight” reaction, we respond to cancer as that beast. The problem is that the “battle” with cancer is not as simple as a brief desperate struggle in the wilderness. It drags on for a long period and even when “won” does not seem over. We feel continued threat. We are not emotionally prepared for an enemy that does not kill us, but never completely leaves.
For many people with a history of cancer, the threat of its return is like a sword that hangs above. It can be very difficult to put the disease behind or even put it aside for a little while. At times it can seem that the fear of cancer’s return makes for life with “nothing happy.”
It is first important to know that this is not personal weakness; it is simply how our brains are wired. To a greater or lesser extent, this is the emotional experience of most cancer survivors. These feeling come and go. Less when all is going well in life, worse when the next test or doctor’s visit loom. Less anxiety when one feels completely well, more with a new ache, pain or fever. By learning the triggers (?getting a mammogram) and the relief (?visiting the grandson) one can gain some control.
Whenever possible it is helpful to have a strong support system. These should be people that can spend time with the survivor when needed and who have some understanding of feelings involved. This can be a great time to join a support group. The sharing with others who have also battled cancer is invaluable. It can be very helpful to have a compassionate physician to lean on for reassurance and guidance.
Families need to understand that though the cancer is gone and time has past, it does not mean that the survivor is whole. Deep healing is slow. It requires patience and communication, understanding there will be setbacks. Likewise, the survivor should try to communicate what they feel to family and friends. This may be as simple as making it clear when the survivor needs a brief break from the rigors of day-to-day life, some space to “find themselves.”
It is important to stay active and not retreat into a corner to hide. Being involved in family, work and community helps the survivor feel “normal” and suppress anxiety. Specific activities to build up psychological and physical strength, such as Reiki, acupuncture, yoga or perhaps just long walks, can help patients maintain emotional control. The goal is to remain a person contributing to society, not a patient involved only with medical care.
Cancer teaches tough and unwanted lessons, like a sword pointed at the soul. Such foreboding can make it hard to go on. However, if we are patient with ourselves and with the ones we love, we can learn to step away. We can find the strength and healing to be happy, love life and go forward together.