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A Buddy System for Courage

by Pamela Davis, EdD

Inspiration image

Dr. Pamela Davis

When my oncologist suggested chemotherapy, I panicked. My perceived future played like a movie in my mind, fast-forwarding then stopping on scenes of frailty, vomiting, total loss of appetite, and incapacitation. As I began treatments, I still had visions of potential pain even though doctors and breast cancer survivors assured me that the chemo I was being prescribed wasn’t the monster I had imagined. Side effects, they explained, were often minimal, and co-therapies alleviated even severe reactions in most people.

But no amount of statistical data or anecdotal evidence could stop the melodrama replaying in my mind. Intellectually I knew that worry was not productive, so I challenged myself to adopt a new way of thinking, or at least find new things to think about. I tried to change my own mind, but it wasn’t until I found an accountability partner that I began to see success.

The theory behind accountability partnerships suggests that, when mak­ing difficult transitions, people are more successful if they have group support as they adopt new habits. This concept was one I was already familiar with. I exercised more consistently with a workout partner. And I completed my Doctor of Education dissertation with support from a weekly writing group. By the time I read that people with cancer benefitted from similar “buddy systems,” through not only decreased psychological stress but also alleviation of mild physical symptoms, I had already campaigned for an accountability part­ner of my own. Here’s how it happened.

I wanted to change the horror show that played in my mind
every time I thought about chemotherapy.

I evaluated the change I desired.
I wanted to change the horror show that played in my mind every time I thought about chemotherapy. I didn’t blame myself for being scared; my re­action was perfectly reasonable. Adverse side effects are a legitimate concern when considering any medication, especially one as toxic as chemotherapy. I needed to change the way I processed my anxiety, not dismiss it.

When looking for an accountability partner, I kept in mind that I needed someone who also had reasonable con­cerns about something going on in their life. Together, my partner and I had to be committed to remembering that life’s pleasures deserved focused attention, even in the face of fear.

My accountability partner and I agreed on mutually beneficial solutions.
My partner and I were dealing with different life issues. She was a small business owner being forced to close an established shop and begin again in a new location. She was worried about her livelihood. I was worried about my life.

When making difficult transitions, people are more successful
if they have group support.

Our partnership worked because we both had good reasons for our concerns. Neither of us were at fault for our pre­dicaments, and, most importantly, we both wanted to help calm our minds by finding time during the day to focus on the good in life. She chose to state her daily gratitudes; I chose to recall my best moments. We texted each other every day.

We set a task that was challenging yet easy to sustain.
I was so overwhelmed with worry that I wasn’t sure that texting my best moment each day would calm my fears; I wasn’t even sure I could find any “best moments” to text. What I was sure of, however, was that I could send a text every night about something that I qualified as “not the worst thing that happened.” And that’s where I began.

Texting was our only action. We didn’t cheerlead or give advice. We kept the rhythm of nightly texts for 30 days. There were no discussions of cancer treatments or business plans, at least not in the context of our partnership.

As time went on, it became easier for me to recognize things I enjoyed each day because I knew I had to report at least one. This created a sort of cognitive dissonance with the worry narrative playing in my mind. I still felt fearful at the thought of chemo. However, what my accountability partner did for me was help me bal- ance my terror of treatment with a keen awareness that there was more to life with cancer than the side effects that aroused my fear.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Pamela Davis is a stage II breast cancer survivor. She blogs about her experience at CrowdsourcingCancer.com.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2016.