Surviving Cancer Emotionally: Learning How to Heal

Surviving Cancer Emotionally: Learning How to Heal

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by Roger Granet, Roger Granet
     
 

Inspiration and Information to Help You Cope With the Emotional Effects of Cancer

Cancer changes our lives-physically and emotionally. The more you understand about your psychological reactions to cancer, the more effectively you can cope. In this powerful book, Dr. Roger Granet, a psychiatrist who specializes in the emotional side effects of cancer and its

Overview

Inspiration and Information to Help You Cope With the Emotional Effects of Cancer

Cancer changes our lives-physically and emotionally. The more you understand about your psychological reactions to cancer, the more effectively you can cope. In this powerful book, Dr. Roger Granet, a psychiatrist who specializes in the emotional side effects of cancer and its treatment, draws on two decades of experience as he explains what you can expect emotionally at each phase. Here's advice on:

• Dealing with the diagnosis

• Finding the coping style that's right for you

• Handling the many demands of treatment

• Knowing when to ask for help-and how to find it

• Surviving and coming to terms with a different you

• Handling the fear of recurrence

Written with compassion and clarity, Surviving Cancer Emotionally reveals how we can cope with a devastating illness and turn it into a positive catalyst for embracing life.

"Dr. Granet provides ways to help people heal emotionally as they cope with an illness that carries great fears with it. Patients and families will find this book a helpful companion as they undertake the cancer journey with all its twists and turns."-Jimmie Holland, M.D., Chairman, Department of Psychiatry, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

"Dr. Granet is a caring physician with a heart and soul, and an unusual gift for telling a story. This book should be read by anybody who has cancer, or who has a loved one with cancer."-Robert Michels, M.D., University Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry, Cornell University, and former Dean and Provost, Cornell University Medical College

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
This user-friendly guide to surviving a cancer diagnosis and the ensuing treatment will be enormously helpful to patient and their intimates. A consulting psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Granet provides a wealth of information about many types of cancers and treatments such as surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and bone marrow transplants. But his central focus is the emotional toll of all aspects of the disease and the importance of seeking support from many of the available resources to cope successfully. While Granet gives no credence to the theory that particular personality traits contribute to cancer, he does insist that a patient's emotional well-being improves her quality of life. In order to maintain emotional health, he recommends strategies for copying after diagnosis, and during and after treatment (one patient struggles with "the endless waiting" leading up to and following tests and treatments). He addresses the fear of recurrence and death. Since the needs and preferences of cancer patients differ, he recommends a variety of workable techniques, based on compelling case histories, such as counseling, participation in support groups and a renewed reliance on caretaking by friends and family. He also believes that all patients benefit from acknowledging their difficult emotions rather them blurring them with alcohol or drugs; indeed, in his customarily compassionate, calm manner, readers will sense that he does not turn away from difficult feelings and fears. He does, though, advocate pain medication as an important tool when appropriate. Nothing that cancer survivors often gain deeper spiritual values and emotional maturity, the author sees the possibility of strength and grace where people often expect humiliation and dysfunction. (Oct.) (Publishers Weekly, September 3, 2001)
Publishers Weekly
This user-friendly guide to surviving a cancer diagnosis and the ensuing treatment will be enormously helpful to patients and their intimates. A consulting psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Granet provides a wealth of information about many types of cancers and treatments such as surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants. But his central focus is the emotional toll of all aspects of the disease and the importance of seeking support from the many available resources to cope successfully. While Granet gives no credence to the theory that particular personality traits contribute to cancer, he does insist that a patient's emotional well-being improves her quality of life. In order to maintain emotional health, he recommends strategies for coping after diagnosis, and during and after treatment (one patient struggles with "the endless waiting" leading up to and following tests and treatments). He addresses the fear of recurrence and of death. Since the needs and preferences of cancer patients differ, he recommends a variety of workable techniques, based on compelling case histories, such as counseling, participation in support groups and a renewed reliance on caretaking by friends and family. He also believes that all patients benefit from acknowledging their difficult emotions rather than blurring them with alcohol or drugs; indeed, in his customarily compassionate, calm manner, readers will sense that he does not turn away from difficult feelings and fears. He does, though, advocate pain medication as an important tool when appropriate. Noting that cancer survivors often gain deeper spiritual values and emotional maturity, the author sees the possibility of strengthand grace where people often expect humiliation and dysfunction. (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780471387411
Publisher:
Wiley
Publication date:
10/01/2001
Pages:
240
Sales rank:
473,773
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.55(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Part One: Cancer and Feelings

Chapter 1: Understanding The Emotional and Physical Realities of Cancer

The house I grew up in was a good place to get sick--up to a point. When I came down with a cold or flu, nurturance enveloped me like a warm blanket. To be ill was to be cared for. My mother prepared my favorite meal every time I asked for it: peanut butter and jelly on rye toast with the crust cut off. My father, dressed in a business suit from his day as an accountant, came to my bed bearing every brand and flavor of cough drop in one hand and a stack of Archie and Superman comics in the other.

Life-threatening illness, though, occasioned another response. When I was twelve, my mother's sister, Hazel, developed cancer. I had no sense of what the word cancer meant or any idea of what to do about the appearance of this disease in my family. Anxiety over this caused me to ask endless questions, yet my parents sidestepped my queries or ignored them altogether. Clearly, they wanted to avoid any discussion of what cancer was and what it meant for Hazel and her family. And when we visited my aunt through the years of her illness, that avoidance blossomed inside me as fright and helplessness.

In my family, commonplace sickness invited openness, support, love, and ease. But when disease crossed a certain line, it became feared. Unconsciously I came to know that life-threatening illnesses evoke a different set of psychological responses in family and friends.

My family was hardly different from most other families. Colds, flu, a hospital stay for surgery, and broken bones prompt outpourings of sympathy, offers of assistance, flowers, and get-well cards. With an illness that can kill, the cards and flowers may also come, but things are different. Denial, rationalization--that is, trying to justify the diagnosis--and often rigidity take the place of openness, truth, and flexibility.

This phenomenon hits home with cancer. No disease is more deeply and profoundly feared. Cancer symbolizes the inevitability of dying, death, and pain. A cancer diagnosis brings the individual and his or her family face-to-face with the reality that we all may suffer and we all will die.

Denial--the conscious or unconscious statement that "this isn't really what I fear it is"--builds a collusion of silence around cancer. People don't even want to say the word, as if pronouncing it makes the disease more real than it already is. They want to put a distance between themselves and anything so obviously fearful. Patients aren't the only ones; physicians do this too. Again and again, I have heard doctors refer to cancer as the "big C." In the New York City area, there's an ongoing medical joke of referring to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center as the "Home of the Mets"--a pun linking nearby Shea Stadium, where the Mets play baseball, with metastasis, the technical term that refers to spreading cancer.

The level of popular and professional denial shows how deeply cancer involves the emotions. Yet the denial does us no good. The only way to begin to understand cancer as a disease is to call it what it is, to tear down the wall of silence, close the distance between ourselves and the disease, say the word out loud, and admit the feelings it raises.

When Cells Go Awry

The first step toward tearing down the wall is to understand cancer for what it is. Cancer is a disease--that is, a deviation or interruption in the ordinary structure or function of an organ. Cancer begins at the body's most basic level: the cell. That much we know. But we are unsure of just what causes cancer to occur. Apparently, there is some kind of dynamic interaction between an individual's genetic complement--what he or she inherited--and environmental factors, such as diet and exposure to toxins. In other words, there is no one single cause of cancer. Rather, a variety of different internal and external characteristics come together and affect the basic cellular level of the body.

According to one leading idea, the change that leads to cancer occurs in the mechanism of cell growth and development. When cells are developing in the embryo before birth, many are undifferentiated--that is, they have the potential to become almost any part of the body. Then, as they develop and differentiate, cells become one thing or another--for example, bone, or part of the brain, or the lining of the lung. Differentiation defines the growth and functions of the cell, as well as its life span. After a definite length of time, the cell dies and is usually replaced. Essentially, we are constantly being recycled. At the cellular level, none of us is the man or woman he or she was five years ago.

In cancer something goes wrong with cell growth. Unlike normal cells, whose growth and life span are limited, cancer cells don't stop dividing when they reach a specified size, and they look more like undifferentiated cells than the differentiated cells in the surrounding tissue. As a result, they continue to expand, push into surrounding cells, and destroy or replace them. Many cancers release secretions that prompt blood vessels to grow into them, providing them with a richer supply of nutrients than what neighboring normal cells receive. And cancer cells don't stay put. As they invade the vessels that carry blood and lymph, they are carried into distant parts of the body. They may lodge in other tissues, and, if they survive attack by white blood cells, they can attach to the new site and start growing and dividing. This is metastasis--cancer's propensity to move from one site to another.

Some cancer researchers believe the disease is a malfunction of the immune system. According to this hypothesis, cancer cells are being produced all the time, but they are quickly detected and destroyed by the immune system, particularly by natural killer (NK) cells. Cancer takes hold when something interferes with the immune system and undercuts the effectiveness of the NK attack. Some of the abnormal cells survive, take hold, grow, and begin to spread.

Technically, a cancer is a malignant neoplasm. Neoplasm refers to any new, abnormal growth. Malignant refers to cancer's propensity to lack differentiation, grow, multiply, invade, and spread. In contrast, a benign, or noncancerous, tumor is less likely to penetrate neighboring cells and tissues, to migrate from one body part to another, or to interfere with the body's healthy structure and function.

One of my physician friends refers to cancer cells as adolescents. Why? They haven't grown up yet, they don't know when to stop, they act out, and they're unruly and ill-behaved! The difference is that if you wait long enough, adolescents grow up all by themselves and become mature individuals. In the case of cancer, waiting around means that the cancer continues to grow and remains part of your body.

The symptoms of cancer come first from the neoplasm's growth, which can press on nerves and cause malfunction and pain, block passageways such as the intestine, cause bleeding in internal organs, and push aside normally functioning cells. For example, as a liver cancer grows and takes over from healthy tissue, more and more normal liver function is lost, and various kinds of metabolic problems arise. In addition, with their rich supply of blood vessels and potent capacity to divide, cancers act like internal parasites, using up energy that normally would have been directed elsewhere. The result can be diminished appetite, weight loss, extreme fatigue, and, in advanced cases, a wasted look to the body.

The rationale behind the various kinds of cancer treatments draws from scientific knowledge of how cancer progresses. Surgery is useful, particularly before the cancer has metastasized to distant sites, because it removes the malignant neoplasm. Radiation and chemotherapy "poison" cells as they divide. Since cancer cells grow so much faster than normal cells, they are particularly vulnerable to this kind of attack. Since some cancers are hormone-dependent (they grow faster in the presence of certain hormones), removing, blocking, or adding hormones may greatly slow the cancer's growth and eliminate or reduce its symptoms. And a newer treatment called immunotherapy focuses on mobilizing the body's own immune system to fight the cancer.

Where Feelings Come into Play

In the past thirty years, cancer treatment has become vastly more sophisticated, selective, and effective. Interestingly, as physicians have become more and more skilled at managing the disease, they have also come to understand the important role emotions play in the entire cancer process. Once we thought that the body, where cancer cells run riot, and the mind or psyche, where emotions happen, were separate spheres. Now we know that they are but two manifestations of the same single being. Medicine can't treat one without addressing the other.

There was a time when most physicians didn't even tell patients what they had. They used euphemistic words such as "growth" or "mass" and consigned the patient to "God's hands." Then, about forty years ago, physicians came to understand that withholding information from the patient or telling a lie undercut the trust the patient felt for the physician and was inherently destructive. More and more physicians began telling patients the truth about their condition. This revelation worked to the benefit of both patient and physician. Patients were better able to talk meaningfully with their doctors and take part in decisions about their treatment, while physicians no longer had to wrestle with truth issues.

At about the same time, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's work on open communication with dying patients, many of them succumbing to cancer, led to a new insight into the importance of the psyche in facing serious illness and death. Increasingly, too, psychiatrists began working as consultants with other physicians treating cancer patients, particularly those affected by anxiety, depression, and delirium. This movement led to the development of the psychiatric specialty known as psycho-oncology, which studies how emotions and personality affect the experience of disease, how cancer alters the psychology of patients and their loved ones, and how patients can shift thought and behavior, often with the help of a professional, to enhance the quality of their lives.

In erasing the artificial barrier between mind and body and in learning how to treat cancer patients as whole beings, we have come to a number of key understandings. For one, there is no such thing as a cancer personality. Popular thinking--fostered in fact by some now-discredited research--has held that certain personality traits contribute to cancer. In a way, this idea isn't particularly revolutionary. It has long been known that driven, high-performing people--so-called type A personalities--are more prone to heart disease than are more relaxed individuals. It is also known that depression slows or impairs the immune system. Wouldn't it make sense, therefore, that certain personality traits can result in cancer?

One theory, unsupported by scientific data, is the so-called type C, or cancer-prone, personality--the individual who, almost directly opposite to type A, is appeasing, unassertive, socially compliant, and unwilling or unable to express resentment, anger, and other negative emotions. As yet, there is no solid research to show any clear connection between personality and the onset of cancer. People of different personality types get cancer with equal frequency. In addition, experiences known to produce symptoms similar to depression do not result in cancer any more often than would be expected otherwise. Reliable studies show that while people who have lost a spouse are at a heightened risk of death within a year of that loss, the increase in fatalities comes from causes other than cancer, such as heart disease and accidents. Cancer is no more widespread among bereaved people than among any group of similar age, ethnic background, and socioeconomic status. Based on what we now know, personality factors and stressful life events do not significantly affect the onset of cancer.

Indeed, the notion that personality can cause cancer has a destructive effect on people who get the disease: It essentially blames the patient for being ill. The argument suggests the patient can have complete control over cancer by purging his or her mind and heart of negative thoughts and feelings and replacing them with positive ones. There is no evidence that this is true. Like the unproven notion of type C as the cancer personality, this mind-over-matter belief subjects people to guilt feelings for being unable to cure their cancer despite concerted efforts to engage in nothing but positive thinking.

Even though there is no proof that a person's emotional structure causes cancer, it may affect disease progression. There is strong evidence that emotional well-being improves quality of life during cancer and may even extend survival time. While the scientific studies in this area are not conclusive, they are suggestive.

A research team led by Steven Greer, M.D., of the University of London, looked at the connection between personality styles and survival with breast cancer. Results of the research suggested that women exhibiting what the research team called a fighting spirit lived longer than did those who were stoically accepting of their condition or whose moods mixed hopelessness with helplessness. The number of patients Greer and his colleagues studied is too small to draw firm conclusions, and the research failed to control for the stage of the cancer, which is a crucial variable in predicting survival time. Still, this research suggests that a determined approach can help in fighting the disease. (Note: It's important to keep in mind, however, that different people fight in different ways. Some are quietly determined, whereas others are loud, angry, and fierce. Since we all have different personalities, there is no one-size-fits-all fighting spirit. Don't feel guilty about how you fight your illness; rather, commit yourself to fighting in the way you find most fitting.)

Another intriguing research effort at Stanford University headed by David Spiegel, M.D., focused on the effects of therapy for patients with advanced breast cancer. Some of the patients in the study received standard medical treatment alone, while others were given group therapy along with training in self-hypnosis for pain. After one year, the patients receiving therapy and hypnosis training reported fewer disturbances in mood, more energy, and less pain that did those undergoing standard medical treatment alone. Even more curiously, the therapy group on average lived more than twice as long as the medical care group. Dr. Spiegel suggests that the ability to express feelings in the group therapy session, the sense of acceptance by other patients and the medical staff, and the ability to seek out answers to problems may have led to better self-care. Currently, additional research is being undertaken with breast cancer patients at Stanford and elsewhere to see if the same connection between therapy, improved quality of life, and longer survival can be demonstrated.

Research in the emerging field of psychoimmunology underscores the direct connection between mind and body and shows further how emotional response to cancer may affect the disease. The brain not only is the seat of emotions, but it also has powerful links to the immune system, so feelings can affect the way the immune system responds. Psychologist Sandra Levy and her co-workers at the National Cancer Institute and the University of Pittsburgh found that cancer patients who felt socially supported by others demonstrated increased activity by natural killer (NK) cells, which distinguish cancer cells from healthy cells and attack them. Research by Fawzy I. Fawzy, M.D., and his colleagues at the UCLA School of Medicine found that when malignant melanoma patients receiving psychotherapy reported a decrease in depression and anxiety, their immune system activity increased.

As we will see in Chapter 2, which focuses on the skills needed to cope with cancer, there is no simple and easy formula for mobilizing emotional resources to fight the disease. Still, given what we now know, it appears that patients who understand what happens emotionally during cancer and who are offered good psychological resources can greatly improve the quality of their lives, and, although they may not be able to stop their disease, they may possibly slow its progression.

Emotional Reactions to Cancer

A diagnosis of cancer brings forth one's fundamental fears, which are based on equally fundamental illusions. The first concerns death. Practically no one really believes that he or she is going to die one of these days. The event seems to exist so far off in a distant future that its inevitability appears merely theoretical, yet the diagnosis of cancer turns the theoretical future into the threatening present. When told they have cancer, most patients immediately ask some version of the big question: "So, is this going to kill me?" (fearing of course that it will). The reality of death has just torn through the illusion of immortality. The emotional consequences are profound.

The second emotional reaction centers around losing control. As soon as one receives a cancer diagnosis, he or she is drawn into a strange world of doctors, hospitals, complex medical terminology, and tests and therapies that range from uncomfortable and unpleasant to life-altering. Suddenly the individual goes from a man or woman who runs his or her own life to a patient whose life is dictated by larger forces over which he or she has little control. In fact, none of us really controls life, but no one understands the absurdity of this illusion more deeply and immediately than someone who has been diagnosed with cancer.

The third emotional response is uncertainty. Before cancer, most people had what they considered a reasonable idea about their appearance and overall health, and how the future was shaping up. Cancer cancels that certainty and replaces it with a long list of I-don't-knows.

The fear of death, the loss of control, and the introduction of uncertainty underlie the emotional reactions to cancer. Cancer poses a direct threat to life and autonomy as real and as physical as the cold-blooded thug stepping out of a dark alley with a pistol pointed at your heart. The reactions are largely what you might expect: fear, anxiety, depression, anger, panic. At best, the experience is disconcerting. At worst, it may seem more devastating than the disease.

The first step in dealing with the emotional reality of cancer is understanding the normal cycles of emotions that characterize the course of the disease. If you have just received a cancer diagnosis and you find your nights are filled with anxious thoughts of long, slow, lingering death, you are not alone. This reaction is absolutely typical. But by knowing what to expect, you can begin to mobilize the needed inner and outer resources. This book will help you understand the normal emotional complications of cancer and show you ways of dealing with them. It will also explore what to do when reactions are beyond the norm.

The next step is to prepare yourself for something unusual about cancer: the way it calls into question how you have lived your life up to the present. In a manner more profound that any other life-threatening disease, cancer forces a reevaluation of the past and the present. It may, in fact, lead you to change fundamental aspects of the way you have been in the world. You may set out to create a new future.

* * *

Nancy, a pediatric nurse and the mother of adolescent twin boys, was in her mid-forties when I first saw her as a patient. The impression she gave was of a warm, sweet woman who moved through life intent on not ruffling feathers or making noise. She was the youngest of three children and the only daughter of a strict, demanding father and a shy, passive mother. Nancy emulated her mother's quiet, pleasing ways, and she worked hard to satisfy her father, who set a person's worth by external accomplishment alone. Nancy had been an excellent student, yet her father had largely overlooked her successes to lavish praise on her two older brothers, who were outgoing, gregarious athletes. No matter what she did, Nancy felt she lived in their shadow.

Nancy earned a degree in nursing, specialized in pediatrics, and was a success in her career, not so much as someone who climbed the medical hierarchy but as a healer to whom patients gravitated for her soft, motherly ways. She was well liked, in part because she was too agreeable to confront even people she disliked, in part because she was warm, kind, generous, and always smiling. Since Nancy hated the spotlight, she sometimes felt that the more ambitious of her peers piggybacked off her success, but she became good at denying that those feelings existed and at explaining them away when they became too obvious to ignore.

Nancy was much the same in her family life. Her husband was the strong, silent type, who provided well, enjoyed his status as patriarch, and, though loving, never encouraged Nancy to talk about herself. Instead, she took care of him in every way. She was a nurturing mother to her twins, always ready with home-baked cookies and a willing ear. Although by nature a worrier, Nancy kept her concerns to herself and paid little attention to her own needs and desires.

In short, Nancy asked for little from life and expected less. Her job, as she saw it, was to do for others. Never particularly self-reflective, she seemed to embrace her roles as nurse, mother, wife, and caretaker.

At first, the pain Nancy experienced in her lower abdomen did nothing to disrupt the structure of her life. However, the discomfort, dull and annoying, wouldn't go away. Soon it was accompanied by burning sensations when she urinated. During a routine Pap smear, she mentioned the problem to her gynecologist, who referred her to a urologist. The results of the long series of tests surprised Nancy: bladder cancer.

"But, you know, I didn't really feel that upset," she confessed to me later. "I had some trouble sleeping for a few nights, and sometimes my heart would race, but then I told myself, 'Look, it's early stage. This is no big deal. Grin and bear it. ' So I did."

Surgery to remove a portion of her bladder was successful, and Nancy recovered relatively quickly, with no complications from the operation. So far, so good. Then her oncologist ordered a series of chemotherapy cycles, a treatment sometimes used in Nancy's type of cancer.

With its accompanying nausea, fatigue, and hair loss, chemotherapy brought the reality of cancer home to Nancy. The loss of control, the uncertainty about her future, and the fear of suffering and death broke through her well-constructed defenses of denial and rationalization. Maybe this was early-stage cancer, and maybe her prognosis was excellent, but she felt like something the cat dragged in nonetheless. Her mood shifted from always smiling to ever sad. Long crying spells beset her, particularly in the early mornings, when her spirits dropped especially low. Things that used to be the center of her life lost most of their interest. She had no desire to connect sexually with her husband, no energy to read romance novels--which had been her preferred form of entertainment--and too little patience to listen to the many ups and downs of her twins' adolescent lives. Her thinking was slow, unreliable and constantly negative, so she took a long leave of absence from work, even though nursing had always sustained her. Nancy felt eternally tired and was tempted to stay in bed most of the time, but sleep came only irregularly and in short, unsatisfying snatches.

"I'd sit awake downstairs at night and think about dying. Sometimes I saw myself dead. I was a corpse amid banks of flowers, and my family was coming to pay last respects. I thought it was a dream, then I'd pinch myself and I'd know I was awake. This was my life. It was horrible to dream about," she told me later.

One of the nurses in the oncologist's office where Nancy was receiving chemotherapy recognized how low she was and passed that information on to her doctor, who made an appointment for Nancy to see me.

"I didn't have enough energy to say no," she said.

Nancy's emotional predicament was hardly unique. Faced with serious disease, many cancer patients drop into depression. For some, the experience is mild, and they are able to shake off the low mood in time. For a substantial number, however, the mood change is more profound. This was the case with Nancy, who had a significant depression. Fortunately, depression can be treated effectively and successfully. In Nancy's case, I recommended psychotherapy for a few months, an antidepressant, and an antianxiety medication to help her relax at night and sleep.

Without doubt, cancer precipitated Nancy's depression. Yet I suspected that there was more to her suffering than this serious disease. The first glimmer of that reality came during our fourth visit together, when I asked her if the antidepressant, which can require several weeks to take effect, was helping.

Instead of answering in her usual short, polite monosyllables, Nancy said, "Oh, I do feel somewhat better--less dark, less shaky. But I still have this sense that I'm nothing more than a failure. The pills aren't doing anything about that."

I recognized that she was working toward some feelings hidden deep inside her. I wanted to hear more, hoping that as she gave these feelings words, she would recognize them as her own. "But why is that?" I said. "You're doing well with the cancer. Everything is going fine."

"My oncologist says that too. She says I'm doing just great. But for someone who's doing so great, I can't do what I'm supposed to be doing," Nancy explained. "I feel useless." Tears formed in the corners of her eyes.

"Useless? What do you mean by useless?" I asked.

"I can't do what I'm supposed to do." She was nearly shouting, her voice high and tight with frustration. "I don't have any hair. I don't have any energy. I'm just a middle-aged woman with cancer who can't be the wife and mother I should be. I have no value in my family."

"You're right about your physical condition. But it's temporary. You will get better when the chemotherapy is over. So, why does being sick mean you have no value?"

Nancy sat quietly and turned the question over in her mind. Tears tumbled down her cheeks. The core of sadness in her was breaking through. Finally she said, "I guess I only experience a feeling of worth when I can do for others."

"Do you feel that you're worth being done for too?" I asked.

Again she was very still. Minutes passed, and the tears continued to stream down her face. "I guess I never thought so. Not from the time I was a girl. The only time I felt like I had a right to take up my space on the earth was when I was doing something for my father, my mother, my brothers. Now it's my husband and my boys and the kids and moms I see as a nurse."

The profound understanding of this dynamic that had driven her life became the turning point of Nancy's work with me. Over the next few months, we explored further the way that her self-esteem was based solely on the care she provided for others. Slowly she came to see that even without hair or the energy to care for her husband and sons, she possessed value and worth. Sick as she was, she had every right to be attended to--and to feel good about deserving the attention. The change in Nancy was not a move toward selfishness or narcissism. Rather, by becoming more assertive about what she needed, Nancy became a more active participant in the treatment of her cancer and in the course of her life.

This change was not easy for Nancy to make. In the same way that the reality of cancer and chemotherapy had prompted the emotions typical to stress--anxiety and depression, for example--the change in her life brought up similar feelings. Still, Nancy discovered new resources within herself that allowed her to move toward a more active way of being in the world. The fighting spirit that Nancy was embracing now helped her in her struggle against the cancer. She also was better able to tolerate the uncertainty and lack of control that exist in cancer--and in the rest of life, for that matter. In addition, her emotional growth led to a more balanced relationship with her husband and children. Unclear at first whether he liked this "new" Nancy, her husband found over time that he felt better about himself when he knew more of what she needed. And her twin sons received an important lesson in altruism and compassion by doing their part to care for their mother while she was sick. Nancy even did better at work when she went back to nursing after recovering from the chemotherapy treatments. More attentive to her own needs and committed to articulating them, she built stronger relationships with the other nurses and the doctors, and found that now she rarely felt taken advantage of.

* * *

Cancer is a dark disorder with dark, emotional consequences. Like everyone who contracts the disease, Nancy suffered, in body and mind. At the same time, though, cancer is a bold light that illuminates the reality of life as a short-term lease, not a never-ending contract. So cancer can provide a catalyst for emotional growth. Nancy learned all these those lessons as she struggled to cope with her condition.

Although it has been five years since I saw Nancy, each holiday season she sends a card writing how well she is. There has been no recurrence of disease, her hair has grown back, and her energy has returned. Equally important, she has continued to live in the new way she learned when she was ill. Before cancer, Nancy tried to slip quietly through life. Then the disease shouted at her. She heard its call, and she grew. In learning how to cope with cancer, Nancy helped herself in the fight against the disease, and she gave herself a new lease on life. You can too. Let's figure out how, together.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Dr. Granet provides ways to help people heal emotionally as they cope with an illness that carries great fears with it. Patients and families will find this book a helpful companion as they undertake the cancer journey with all its twists and turns."—Jimmie Holland, M.D., Chairman, Department of Psychiatry, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

"Dr. Granet is a caring physician with a heart and soul, and an unusual gift for telling a story. This book should be read by anybody who has cancer, or who has a loved one with cancer." —Robert Michels, M.D., University Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry, and former Dean, Weill Medical College of Cornell University

"An extremely helpful book for all suffering from cancer. It addresses both the medical and psychological issues comprehensively and sensitively, providing patients with the information they need to face this challenge."—John A. Talbott, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry, University of Maryland School of Medicine

Meet the Author

ROGER GRANET, M.D., F.A.P.A., is a consulting psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, a lecturer in psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and an attending physician at New York Presbyterian Hospital and Morristown Memorial Hospital. He maintains private practices in New York City and Morristown, New Jersey.

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Surviving Cancer Emotionally: Learning How to Heal 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
who wants to read or do anything else while wrestling with cancer? having said that this book gave me and my family both motivation and information in a readable insightful way to deal with this illness. no one wants cancer, but if you are diagnosed with it , this is a most helpful friend to take along!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was diagnosed with cancer just three weeks ago and up until yesterday I had been walking around in an anxious daze.Fotunately my oncologist told me about this wonderful book and I spent most of the night reading it.What the book has done is explain in clear comforting words that my reactions are normal and provides me with ways to cope. I know that I am in for some difficult times but know I have a way in which I can heal in all the ways of healing.Anyone who has to go through this should find the insights and hope in this book a huge relief
J_beanJG More than 1 year ago
I recently was diagnosed with non-small cell Adenocarcinoma. I have gone through chemo, radiation and surgeries including a lobectomy. I was trying to prepare myself to go back work. I read all kinds if books about living with cancer, etc., as well as everything I could find on the Internet. This book by far has been most helpful. It has helped me to look at the blessings/lessons learned from having cancer. Towards the end of the book there is a list of Lessons Learned from Cancer. I look at this list often and it helps me to keep perspective. I highly recommend this to anyone who may need help dealing with anxiety. The book also has a wonderful resource guide at the end of the book for additional reading and/or support groups.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book provides enormous insight and hopefulness.My family,friends and I passed the book around because it helped us to talk about our feelings regarding my cancer and did so by providing honest and hopeful information on coping.By now it is 'dog-eared' from use, but it remains a source of endless relistic optimism