The Positive Side of Cancer
Last month I had the fortunate opportunity to give a workshop to patients, providers, and caregivers who have been affected by blood cancers (e.g., leukemia, lymphoma). The workshop focused on Positive Psychology and Cancer. This was particularly meaningful for me because too often we Psychologists and Researchers get wrapped up in what is wrong with people, rather than, what is right with people? The specific topics we covered were: Post traumatic Growth, Resiliency, Self-Compassion, and Mindfulness. If you missed it, don't worry because I've included some of the key take-away points below!
Cancer & Post traumatic Growth (PTG)
PTG is defined as a person’s positive psychological changes after confronting a negative or traumatic event. It can also be thought of as the positive changes that occur through the process of struggling with traumatic events, and the positive evaluation of the challenge and loss. This notion of positive evaluations and changes after Cancer is something that resonates deeply with people who have encountered a life-threatening illness. (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995).
To better understand this concept of PTG, researchers have used a questionnaire called the Posttruamtic Growth Inventory (PTGI) to measureCancer patients/survivors experiences. Interestingly, between 50-80% of people report some positive changes after treatment. Some common areas of life that can change include:
- New personal Strength
- Changes in how we relate to others
- A new appreciation of life
- New possibilities
- Spiritual changes
There is a fantastic quote from Mr. Hamilton Jordan in his book, No such thing as a bad day that captures this phenomenon beautifully. Mr. Jordan was a survivor of 7 types of Cancer who served as a presidential advisor. He writes:
Purpose, Meaning and the Cancer Experience
From the perspective of a Clinical Psychologist and Cancer Therapist, I think this quote brings up a particularly important point about purpose. When going through Cancer, the identities we hold closely may be cast aside as we are no longer able to do what we used to be able to do. For example, someone who found great purpose and meaning in their occupation, butis now too ill to work, will be faced with some pretty significant personal questions.
When I work with patients going through this, I like to do some exercises to help clarify our Values, or life directions, that bring us purpose. For example, you could ask yourself - What would you want people to say about you at your 90th birthday party? Or, If you were to receive a lifetime achievement award, what would you want the presenter to say about you? Exercises like these can help us to pinpoint what are Values are and what we want our lives to stand for.
Chances are you wouldn't want to just be remembered as someone who finally paid off that car or home, or successfully lost that darn 10 pounds. Rather, we often think of Values as something we will never fully achieve, but more so ideals that we can strive and persevere towards. For the Cancer patient/survivor or caregiver, coming to terms with a life-threatening disease will invariably bring up some painful emotions. However, as we see from the above discussion on PTG, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is my hope that your Cancer experience will help illuminate what really matters to you.