Because we mostly view cancer as some kind of outside force attacking our bodies, we often use language such as “fight,” “battle,” and “war on cancer,” to describe our encounters with it. This viewpoint causes us to do whatever it takes to “win,” which often means incredibly harsh treatments that can leave our bodies and our psyches depleted, weakened and in need of some TLC. This kind of approach often views the doctor as a type of mechanic fixing the mysterious inner-workings of our bodies the same way we would our cars.
Unlike our cars, however, we are not just mechanical. We have thoughts and feelings both of which, there is little doubt, have a significant impact on our health and well-being. Thankfully many physicians and medical teams are recognizing the importance of a holistic approach that treats a “whole person,” rather than just a set of symptoms or an illness. They recognize that cancer cells are actually present in every body and mostly don’t cause problems until something causes them to spiral out of control. As I recently heard one doctor say, “Someone with an intact immune system can’t get full-blown cancer.”
Many factors impact immune function including diet, alcohol and smoke, radiation, age and even strenuous exercise, but one of the biggest factors is chronic stress. It is well known that the body heals best when it is in a relaxed state. Our fight or flight mechanism was designed to kick in when we were being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. While that almost never happens these days, that same process sends adrenaline coursing through our bodies now when we are stuck in traffic, worried about the phone bill, or thinking about all the items on our to do list. Modern society causes our stress response to kick into high gear about fifty times a day, and that takes a toll on our health.
The role that stress plays not just on our emotional well-being, but on our physical health is well-documented, which is why focusing on healing your emotions, as well as managing them better in the future is crucial to living a longer, healthier and happier life. Having cancer can dramatically increase stress as a number of new fears come into the picture: worry about recurrence, medical bills, impacts of treatment, discrimination due to illness, physical limitations, infertility and a host of other concerns. That is why it is even more important after a diagnosis to slow down and take the time you need to heal.
Healing literally means, “to make whole.” While we are already whole, complete and perfect, we certainly don’t usually feel that way. Particularly after going through something as disruptive as cancer. That is why any healing process must consider the emotional trauma that may have contributed to illness in the first place, and which can be an on-going detriment to health and well-being afterward. The good news is that cancer can be a magnificent wake up call, as well as a significant motivator for focusing on healing.
In addition to alleviating the cancer in my physical body, my thoughts, emotions and spirit were healed as well through the process. Having cancer helped me learn to take better care of myself on many levels. I now eat better, get more sleep, drink more water, meditate and pay MUCH more attention to my mental and emotional well-being than I used to.
I am calmer, more centered, set boundaries better, and don’t get frustrated as easily. Because I can authentically feel gratitude for the healing cancer has brought to my emotional life, I can let go of any anger, fear or sadness about its showing up in the first place. I can instead feel gratitude at the opportunity to see all of the patterns in my life that were in need of healing, and to seek out the resources, coaches and connections to heal them.
Tracy Maxwell is the author of Being Single, With Cancer: A Solo Survivor’s Guide to Life, Love, Health & Happiness. She is also a healing coach, keynote speaker, facilitator, and survivorship guide. She loves to help people identify the patterns in their lives that are keeping them from living in the most present, fulfilled and connected way. You can reach her at her website or firstname.lastname@example.org.