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Maintaining Optimism After a Cancer Diagnosis

by Ann Webster, PhD

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To cancer survivors, health is not simply the absence of illness. Survivors face all sorts of physical, psychological, social, behavioral, and spiritual challenges. Cancer creates a great deal of fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, and even panic. Maintaining optimism and resiliency is often difficult.

In my Mind/Body Cancer Program, I offer people with cancer a variety of self-care techniques that enable them to decrease stress and take an active role in living fully in mind, body, and spirit. These techniques, which have been proven effective by research, enhance your positive emotions, which, in turn, optimize health and well-being.

Especially important is to learn to quiet your mind and calm your body. Do this by eliciting the “relaxation response,” which is a state of peacefulness. It decreases sympathetic nervous system activity, reduces stress hormones, and quiets the noise of your mind. The relaxation response is the opposite of a stress response and is the foundation of everything I teach. Techniques include meditation, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, visualization, prayer, and self-hypnosis. These practices help you to stay in the moment and experience inner stillness. Relaxation is an important step in the process of healing.

Laugh more often. Laughter gives your immune system a boost.

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Dr. Ann Webster

Another tip for staying positive is what I call “news and goods.” Every day for the rest of your life, do something new or good for yourself. These do not have to be big deals or cost a lot of money. You might treat yourself to some delicious dark chocolate, take an aromatherapy bath instead of a shower, call a friend, or walk in nature. These things perk up your spirits very quickly.

As distressing as cancer can be, people with cancer sometimes find benefits. They often say, “How come it took cancer to get me to ‘wake up?’” Things that used to be important no longer are, while other things become vital. People change careers, experience increased spirituality, and develop more intense relationships with family and friends. Research has called this “benefit finding” or “resiliency.” Both create positive emotions.

Create some quiet time, sit down with paper and pen, and ask yourself these big questions: “What is really meaningful in my life now?” “Why am I here?” “What are the gifts I have to give?” Then focus on the following: career/education, relationships, creativity, play, health, material objects, spirituality, volunteering, and self-transformation. Close your eyes and think of what you want, and when you have answers, write them down. Take small steps to attain your goals. Doing what gives your life meaning gives you a sense of commitment, control, and resiliency.

Every day for the rest of your life, do something new or good for yourself.

Create an “attitude of gratitude” list. Each day, write about things you are grateful for. It is easy to get caught up in all the details of cancer and forget there are many things and people in your life that you appreciate.

Do some sort of physical exercise every day. If you cannot do the exercises that you used to do, go for a walk, or take a yoga or Tai Chi class. Exercise improves your stamina, mood, and immune system.

When dealing with cancer, and everything else that life brings you, your mind becomes very busy. If you pay attention, you might discover that you do a lot of “catastrophizing,” jumping to conclusions, and wishing. Maybe you make up huge stories about what might happen, or you ruminate about the past. Your negative thoughts create negative emotions. If you write down these negative thoughts, you will recognize that many of them are illogical, not helpful, and often not true. Ask yourself, “Is this helping me right now?” Replace negative thoughts with more rational and positive ways of thinking. You will find that when you change your mind, you can change your mood. Research shows that positive thoughts and emotions can have effects beyond making you “feel good” in the moment. They create new ways of thinking, enhance optimism, and buffer you from future stress.

Laugh more often. Spend time with people who make you laugh. Laughter has many health benefits, according to research. It releases beta-endorphins (natural painkillers), so pain is reduced, and your mood is improved. Best of all, laughter gives your immune system a boost.

It is my hope that in practicing some of these simple techniques, you will feel more peaceful, optimistic, and energetic. You may feel more connected to yourself and the world around you and discover a more inspired way of living.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Ann Webster is the director of the Mind/Body Programs for Cancer and for HIV+/AIDS at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2008.

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