The idea that you need to stay positive to effectively treat cancer can put a lot of pressure on an already overtaxed psyche. Amidst the barrage of “stay strong,” and “you’ve got this,” you may feel as though you need to hide your shock, pain, anger and grief from friends and family, and that takes a lot of energy. “As a culture, we want to believe we can think ourselves out of cancer, that we can cause the cancer cells to go away,” says Dr. Jana Bolduan Lomax, a licensed clinical health psychologist in Denver who specializes in coping with cancer and survivorship. “The reality is, we don’t have that control, but we can create space for people to feel safe to be mad and angry, even if it’s inconsistent with their identities.”
People with late-stage disease often perform a delicate dance of trying to show people in their lives they’re strong while also trying to prepare themselves for their death.
The best way to address both the desire to live and the desire to let go: Get palliative care (also termed supportive care) involved.
“People think when you have palliative care on board that you’re giving up hope,” Lomax says. “That’s not the case at all. Instead, palliative care allows for better symptom management and enhanced quality of life.” Research also suggests it may help you live longer.
Results from a study published in Health Psychology in 2017 demonstrated that patients with advanced cancer who were depressed and who received palliative care interventions lived longer than those who did not get palliative care services. Researchers suspect that palliative care not only plays a role in managing symptoms but also helps patients focus on what’s most important to them: Finding joy despite a difficult diagnosis.
“Cancer takes up a huge slice of the pie. How can you reclaim some of the other slices of that pie?” Lomax says. For Reed, that meant laughter and music. She regularly indulged in all-out cancer laugh fests with her friends and created playlists of her favorite songs: Aretha Franklin’s version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” and Bette Midler’s “The Rose.” “‘The Rose’ always made cry tears of hope, and I would end these customized concerts with Helen Reddy’s ‘I am Woman,’” she says.
Cettina’s not-so-guilty pleasure is Netflix, especially shows such as “Outlander” and “Bridgerton.”
“Watching period pieces takes me out of my life for a while,” she says. She also regularly takes time out to tune into her body with qi gong classes, sound (and water) baths and journeys through the art of guided imagery, meditation and hypnosis. Although her goal with hypnosis was initially to alleviate the anticipatory nausea she experienced prior to chemotherapy, the therapist also harnessed the power of her mind to tackle big picture issues.
“He said things (such as) ‘Your body is a healing machine,’ ‘Your body wants to return to its healthy state,’ and ‘You’re going to surprise your doctors and cure this pancreatic cancer,’” Cettina says. “I didn’t believe his words in the beginning, but I listened to them over and over, borrowing his optimism.”
Six months after Cettina’s diagnosis, her tumor had shrunk significantly. However, the presence of liver lesions meant she was not eligible for potentially curative surgery. Long-term survival felt impossible. “I really felt smashed at that point. I curled up into a ball for a few days and felt really bad,” she says. But when Cettina emerged, she uncovered other treatment options she wouldn’t have pursued if she had been eligible for surgery.
“I think people’s mindset needs to be that they’re not dying of cancer. They’re living with cancer,” Ocean says. “To live a life of happiness and positivity is like medicine, and I do think it can help change the trajectory of the disease, even if it’s only a temporary change.”
With cancer, doors will close. When they do, the key is to look for a proverbial window. Cettina already has outlived her initial life expectancy. “I already feel (as though) I’ve won the cancer lottery,” she says. “I can’t say for certain whether my optimism has kept me going, but it has taught me that good things can come from a bad situation. I’ve been lucky before. I could be again.”