*February 2019* Written by Tess Taft, MSW, LICSW, and oncology psychotherapist.© Any real threat to our lives forces us to wake up, to look inside ourselves for meaning, for wisdom, for patience, for love. For many, a cancer diagnosis provides just such an impetus, often if for no other reason than to escape the paralyzing fear springing from discovering a life-threatening disease lurking within that most personal of places, our bodies. Often the “silver lining” of cancer (or any life-threatening disease) is the opportunity to learn to see ourselves, our lives, and our decisions and actions all along the way, with a new-found softness and compassion. As you well know, the inner voice of fear yells within us, while the voices of peace, love, courage, and hope whisper and are heard most powerfully when we can calm ourselves, become quiet, and listen. It may be more important than you know for you to learn to see yourself with new eyes.
Volumes of new research in psychoneuroimmunology since the early 1980s tell us that the connection between loving ourselves and allowing the love of others to take root in our hearts is directly linked to our immune health. Steve Cole MD, Professor of Medicine, Hematology-Oncology, and Member of the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology in Los Angeles, has published several studies “suggesting that negative mental states such as stress and loneliness guide immune responses by driving broad programs of gene 1 expression, shaping our ability to fight disease.” (Jo Marchant, Nature Magazine, Nov. 2013) Don’t get me wrong. The stress of a cancer diagnosis and treatment is cruelly stressful, creating a tsunami of anxiety and fear for most people. The goal is not to eradicate the stress (who can do that, really?) but to learn to manage it, to balance it by becoming skilled at easily accessing inner voices of love, compassion, patience, and gladness at being alive, and allowing those voices to guide our lives as we travel through disease. But how can you learn to do this? Here are some ideas:
• Thank your body, especially your immune system, for all the ways it is helping you, for all the ways it has worked in the past on your behalf. It may need some help now to eradicate cancer cells, but any treatment you do would be useless if your body had not been fighting its hardest all along the way.
• Become exquisitely aware of the soft compassion you offer to others you love, or those you have come to know who are experiencing cancer or any life-threatening disease. Then, apply the same soft compassion to yourself. You can sit in a chair, close your eyes, breathe gently as you drop your shoulders, and imagine another stressed and frightened “you” sitting opposite you. Take care of her (or him) in your mind, offer compassion, kindness, and tell her you love her and will not abandon her because she is afraid. The key is this: if you separate from “her” and take care of “her,” you will not become “her,” lost and lonely in her wilderness of fear and dread. This wise, calm, emotionally generous inner self can never be lost, only obscured by fear.
• Learn to welcome the compassion and love others offer to you, loving you as you plow forth on your healing path. Allow yourself to inhale their words of encouragement and love into every cell of who you are, reminding yourself often what they said or did that made you know how loved you are. They too are helping your immune system to become stronger by feeding your resilience and courage, for you know you are not alone on your path.