Can You Really Live Well with Advanced Cancer?

Can You Really Live Well with Advanced Cancer?

The Choice Is Up to You

by Courtney Weaver, LCSW, OSW-C

As cancer treatments improve, more people are living longer with advanced cancer. For some, the disease is considered chronic, rather than terminal. And as the number of long-term cancer survivors has grown, the conversation surrounding advanced cancer has shifted from simply surviving cancer to living well with cancer. 

Magazine articles and cancer websites are filled with advice on everything from adopting a healthy post-cancer lifestyle to dealing with difficult emotions after a cancer diagnosis. While no one can deny that taking care of both your physical and mental health is crucial for advanced cancer survivors, there is another aspect of living well with cancer that is often overlooked. And that is the power of choice. 

If we are alive, we have choice. We can choose how we react to news, how we wake up each day, and how we feel about the day when it is done. 

A Tale of Two Cancer Survivors 

To illustrate this point, let’s look at a day in the life of two quite different, hypothetical, advanced cancer survivors:

  • Violet is a 45-year-old woman living with stage IV colon cancer. She gets up in the morning and writes three positive, reasonable goals for her day: laugh, feel the sun on my face, and play with the dog. Throughout her day, she does manage to accomplish these three goals, but she also gets immunotherapy treatment, has to sit through a boring work meeting while dealing with intense back pain, and spills her coffee in the car. At the end of the day, she reviews her goals, smiles, and thinks, “It was a good day.” She reads a book, kisses her husband goodnight, and falls asleep feeling content.
  • Bill is a 60-year-old retiree living with stage IV lung cancer. He gets up in the morning and takes his chemo pill, thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.” He gets out of bed, snaps at the dog for being in the way, and goes down to the kitchen. As he drinks his coffee, he plans his day: go to the doctor for blood work, watch TV with my wife, and eat dinner with my family. Throughout the day, he focuses on every ache and pain. At the end of his day, he sits and thinks, “My life has become pointless.” He lies restless in bed for several hours until he finally falls asleep.
  • Violet and Bill both choose how they start, spend, and end each day. They both have good things and frustrating things in their lives. However, they have quite different reactions. Who would you rather be?

If we are alive, we have choice. We can choose how we react to news, how we wake up each day, and how we feel about the day when it is done.

The Choice Is Yours 

These examples may seem overly simple. Living with an advanced cancer diagnosis comes with pain, sadness, a feeling of disconnect from others, a deep sense of loss, and uncertainty about the future. However, with help, those aspects of cancer can be processed, managed, and accepted. It’s normal to need professional help, like a therapist or a support group, to get there. But it IS possible. Now, you have a choice to believe this or not. 

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If you decide to believe that it is possible to live well with advanced cancer, then it is time for some personal introspection. Identifying your individual goals, values, and beliefs can help to pave the way to finding meaning in your life and shifting your focus back to joyful experiences … despite having advanced cancer. Once you’ve identified, organized, and prioritized your goals and values, then you can begin to work on the changes you need to make to realize them.

Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life

First, it is critical to stop wasting energy on negative influences. Speak up for yourself and ask for support from your healthcare team, request clear explanations of your cancer and its treatment, and insist that your personal treatment goals be taken into consideration when making medical decisions. When it comes to your personal life, now is the time to focus on your positive support system and let go of the relationships that drain you. Learn how to ask for help, accept help, and clearly communicate your needs and wants, instead of just going with what other people think you need or want. 

It’s also important to clear out your own negative internal baggage. Shame and blame have no purpose in our lives. Letting go of mistakes and regrets can be incredibly uplifting. And leaving behind all your negative baggage will free up a lot more mental and emotional space for hope, laughter, positive thinking, and joy in the life that you are still living each day. 

Here is my challenge for you. When you finish reading this, sit back, close your eyes, and picture one negative thing that you can do without. It can be a person, a regret, shame, frustration, anything. Picture it enclosed in a bubble, and blow it away. I mean really pucker your lips and blow it far, far away. Then open your eyes and smile. Do you feel lighter? Happier? More peaceful? Remember this feeling, and keep choosing it every day.


Courtney Weaver

Courtney Weaver is an oncology clinical therapist for Life with Cancer in Northern Virginia. She has worked as an outpatient therapist since 2012 and has a specific interest in helping people live fully in survivorship, whether it is from trauma, chronic illness, or cancer. In her role with Life with Cancer, Courtney provides individual, family, and group counseling to cancer survivors and their loved ones. She also facilitates a monthly support group for stage IV cancer survivors and their caregivers.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2020.

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