Finding Inner Peace in the War on Cancer
by Morry Edwards, PhD
We have often used military metaphors such as fight or battle to describe a person’s struggle against cancer. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Cancer,” which we are slowly winning with approximately 12 million cancer survivors living in America today.
It is important to fight the good fight, but how you wage that fight depends on what is important in your life. We have plenty of powerful weapons in the “War on Cancer”: targeted chemotherapies, modulated radiations that spare healthy tissue, effective hormonal treatments, and immunological vaccines on the horizon. But we should never forget a most powerful tool that money cannot buy, but all of us can possess – inner peace.
There are many extraordinary cancer survivors. But you don’t have to be a Lance Armstrong, who won the Tour de France seven times after metastatic testicular cancer. Or a Sean Swarner, who climbed Mt. Everest and six other continental heights after two bouts with two different primary cancers. You don’t have to be Lance Mackey, a throat cancer survivor and two-time winner of the Iditarod, the grueling dog sled Alaska competition. Or Barbara Hillary, a 75-year-old lung cancer survivor, who grew up in Harlem, learned to ski, and made it to the North Pole.
And you certainly may not have the guts to perform a biopsy and administer chemotherapy to yourself like Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who discovered her own breast cancer while on expedition at the South Pole. But to have inner peace, you do need to be in harmony with your true self. To be at peace with yourself means you are headed True North, that you are living your life as best you can from moment to moment.
Ten Habits for Cultivating Inner Peace
- Make a point to start and end each day with a positive thought.
- Develop a daily practice of becoming quiet enough to experience what calmness really feels like. Start with just two minutes if that is all you have. You can always increase it.
- Try to acknowledge 100 blessings a day, to notice all the beauty and small miracles that surround you. You can begin with an appreciation for what still works in your body. Watch the sun rise or set. Feel the touch of a family member. Savor a drink of water.
- Create the best individual healing path, which includes exploring all avenues that can generate growth, peace, and harmony among body, mind, and spirit.
- Be proactive and informed so you can pick your treatment team and participate actively in decisions that affect you.
- Be willing to explore and accept your thoughts and feelings so you can change them or make peace with them. You have the ability (although it needs to be cultivated) to refocus your attention on what really makes your life matter.
- Stay in the moment instead of worrying about the future or holding regrets about the past. This opens you up to a fuller experience of what is happening as you pass through life.
- Stay focused on what you still have rather than what you have lost.
- Experience the wonder of a spiritual connection. It may be difficult during this time to understand “why?” but an overriding sense that there is some purpose is essential to inner peace.
- Focus on what is meaningful, joyful, and makes you feel productive. This gives you something to look forward to, and we all need that. Keep doing the things you love to do as long as you possibly can. Surround yourself with the people who matter most and who help you feel supported.
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Dr. Morry Edwards is a licensed psychologist and certified biofeedback practitioner who specializes in treating people with cancer and other chronic illnesses. He currently practices at Neuropsychology Associates and is director of Psychological Services at the West Michigan Cancer Center in Kalamazoo, MI. His book, MindBody Cancer Wellness: A Self-Help Stress Management Manual, 3rd Edition, will be available soon through acornpublishing.com. This article was inspired by “Waging Peace in the War on Cancer,” by Dr. Thomas Edes, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2008.