Many surveys have shown that grateful people have better health. It should be intuitively obvious, but it bears up in evidence. Stress cannot be good for a body trying to recover from cancer. One sure stress reliever is gratitude. An old Sunday School chorus advises, "Count your blessings, name them one by one; count your many blessings, see what God has done." To be genuine, gratefulness must be unselfish and sincere. You can't say, "I'll try to act thankful so that my health improves." That's not gratitude; that's selfishness.
Have you noticed how easy it is to murmur and complain? Gratitude requires effort. There's something about human nature that finds perverse pleasure in complaining. We identify the bad things in a situation before the good. We need rain but complain about it when it comes. We need government but rake the politicians over the coals. Watch out for that in others and in your own habits. We cancer patients naturally worry about the tumors that remain in our bodies, but how often are we grateful for the body parts that remain healthy? Make a list of all your body parts that are still working just fine— taste buds, your limbs, your eyes, your heart, your brain—you'll be surprised at how much you can be thankful for.
My mother is slowly wasting away from dementia. When I visit, I know that one thing that can open her eyes and bring a smile out of her usual sleepy posture is a dish of ice cream. We have little parties together, with ice cream followed by prayer time. I'm happy when she smiles, and her expression shows she is happy her taste buds still work. If we could all focus on the good parts of our lives, we would relax more – and improve our health.
Getting cancer has raised my awareness of others in the same battle. I've made a point of praying specifically for cancer patients the Lord brings along my path. As a leading cause of death worldwide, cancer is near to the minds of many, many people. Bring up the subject and you immediately start a conversation about a loved one they lost, or ones they know who have it. I'm one of the lucky ones with a slow-growing kind that can be treated. Some in my support group with carcinoid cancer have much more advanced cases, and have been through far worse ordeals – multiple surgeries, treatments with bad side effects, and symptoms that affect their quality of life.
Praying for others and helping them in tangible ways, or with a simple word of encouragement, helps them and helps you. Once again, you can't fake sincerity! We need to cultivate the habit of unselfishness by taking time to pray, comfort, and help those in need. To reduce stress, though, you can't lapse into worry about things you cannot control. That's why having confidence in God—who is in control and cares about His creatures—is vital. With faith in God, and knowledge of His promises, you can calmly act as His angel of comfort, and leave the outcome to Him.
One of the ways you can help others is to share helpful resources. See if there is a support group in your area for people with your kind of cancer. It's a great way to not only find emotional support, but to get practical information on treatment options. In a good support group, you can give and receive help.
One of the unique resources I have to share is my sister's book, Hope for Those Who Hurt. Jeanne Tomlinson and her husband Howard went on a roller-coaster ride of emotions for a decade as they dealt with his brain tumors. The lessons they learned are preserved in this short book that not only tells their story, but can be read as a daily devotional filled with helpful attitudes for anyone dealing with medical trials.
Another helpful resource specifically for cancer patients is Larry Burkett's short book, Nothing to Fear: The Key to Cancer Survival. The late financial adviser was given 2-3 years to live with kidney cancer, but lasted 8 years – and he didn't succumb to cancer, but rather to an unrelated medical condition. In his semi-autobiographical text, Burkett shares what worked for him. He gives practical, reasonable tips for managing cancer, controlling diet, exploring treatment options, and especially, building a confident faith that can provide hope and relieve stress.
There's no substitute, though, for being there with the hurting person. Spend time talking with others. Let them express their worries and doubts. Can you be their shoulder to lean on? Can you provide helpful guidance? Can you research answers they need? If you can be a stepping stone, not a stumbling block, you will help yourself as well as helping them. There's an inexpressible satisfaction when someone is blessed by what you provided.
"Knowledge is power," Francis Bacon famously said. Understanding your cancer can help you deal with it rationally. Like diet and exercise, it's one of the things that can make you feel empowered as you face this formidable enemy – provided you don't dwell on the negatives. Instead, learn all you can about the treatments available. Larry Burkett reminds us that we are in control of our health care decisions. It's defeatist to just flop on your oncologists. They are essential, requiring our trust, but they don't know everything, and some have mixed motives. Not all doctors are created equal! Find the ones that really understand your cancer and have a good track record. It's best to have a team of specialists working together.
Be sure your knowledge is sound. One of the things you find as a cancer patient is that friends are all too eager to help you with advice about diets, miracle cures, and quick fixes. Some of the advice I've encountered is pure quackery. Don't put your hope in weird, unconventional cures, especially if someone has a product to sell or claims that the medical establishment ("the cancer industry") is a giant conspiracy trying to suppress their miracle cure. This is not to say that medical "evidence based research" with clinical trials and all is infallible, but it's the best we have, with the best track record. Cancer survival is much higher now than it was 30 years ago.
What I suggest is to study up on your cancer when you are in the mood to do it – when you can be rational and clinical in your mind. Maybe a spouse or other family member can assist. Once you know all you need to know (or all you are prepared to deal with at the time), make the best decisions you can, then let it go. Don't dwell on it. Don't visualize the tumors. Don't fear what might happen (it hasn't happened, yet). Avoid those traps by finding worthwhile things to do.
Another stress reliever is spending time doing creative work you enjoy. Whether quilting, playing an instrument, painting, or practicing a sport, we all have special activities that give us fulfillment. My problem is too many hobbies! I love to write music, take pictures and video, lead hikes... my list is long. I just wrote a composition for concert band, with all the parts--clarinets, trumpets, drums, the whole shebang! I performed it in my home studio with my electronic musical instruments, and now I can listen to it with headphones on my walks. Wow! Sure, I'd be happy if others liked it, but whether or not anyone else ever hears it, it's a big emotional lift for me, and cancer is the farthest thing from my mind when I'm engaged.
Another carcinoid patient I know is a pianist who produced a beautiful album she shares with people. She said it's what got her through her ordeal. Pity the person who has nothing to do but flop on the couch with the remote. If you don't have a creative interest, find one—it will do your body and soul good.
I like to think of the world as a 360-degree, surround-sound, audio-visual resource. Do you have opportunity to view the beauty of nature? Try it: it's health-giving. The song of birds, the color of a rose, the glory of a sunset – there's no end of natural wonders that can refresh your soul.
Even if you are bedridden, you might be able to watch beauty on a TV screen. I assist a film documentary company that makes outstanding nature videos and inspirational films. We just finished an inspirational film called "King of Creation" (see trailer at this link) featuring Scriptures, hymns and awe-inspiring scenes of nature. I'm going to get a lot of copies to share, and will be watching it over and over myself to relax. Scientific studies have shown that beautiful scenes of nature help hospital patients heal faster.
Music, too, can be a tremendous healer. I recommend classical music. Cancer patients don't need the incessant hard beat of rock that assaults the eardrums. Maybe you can tolerate it; I can only speak for myself. But the soothing sounds of strings and oboes and horns is always in style. Many great works can lift you out of the pains of this life and take you temporarily to a kind of heaven. You can tell a good piece of music, because it bears listening to over and over, but you always find something new. Maybe your taste is jazz, country, or something else, but consider music as one of your most practical stress relievers.
Other audiovisual aids, like books and movies, can also take your mind off your cares for a time and lift your spirits. I purposely avoid high-stress movies unless there is some redeeming value; I don't need more stress, I need less of it! Why put your emotions through the wringer with someone else's troubles, real or imagined? Sometimes it's justified, but aim for things that will relieve stress in your life. That goes for a lot of things. Remove yourself from the presence of stressors.
If you have quality time, use it wisely. None of us knows if we are going to be cured, or how much time we have. "Which of you by worrying," Jesus said, "can add a single day to your life span?" With apologies for an old cliche, remember that each day is a gift: that's why it's called the present.
What were the things you always wanted to do before you die? Hopefully they are good things. I know I've had to reconsider what things are worthwhile and what things can lapse. I'd really like to have a well-organized garage, but there are other things far more important now. Maybe I'll get to that some day. If I don't, no matter. What is important to you? Make a list of things you don't want to leave undone. Cancer patients are keenly aware of the preciousness of life, but even if we didn't have that reality, we all know we are going to die sometime. It could be soon (a car crash, a heart attack, a crime). So we cancer patients are there with all mankind: everyone is in the same boat, facing the inevitable. If something in your life is important, don't put it off.
Certainly one of the most important things on your list will be to tell your spouse, children, or best friends that you love them. If you've been taking them for granted, it's about time to write it into your "list of things to do today" to express what they mean to you. Maybe your list will include asking forgiveness for a past wrong, or clarifying a misunderstanding. Maybe it will be planning for the needs of family members, writing or updating a living trust including an advance healthcare directive. Maybe it will be taking a trip to somewhere you always hoped to see, or giving a special person a gift. Why has that important priority been on the back burner so long? Cancer is a wake-up call to stop procrastinating.
There is no greater priority in life than to know your Maker and be in a right relationship with Him. On this website, I provided a map to summarize the way shown in the Bible, God's Word. Let that be a start, but don't just read the map: get on the trail—the straight and narrow path that leads to eternal life. How long since you opened a Bible and read it? How long since you talked to your Creator? If you are a Christ follower already, no doubt you have friends or family members you have wanted to talk to about the Lord. Don't put it off any longer.
What could be better than to end this life like Paul, saying, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing" (II Timothy 4:7-8). To be safe in the Lord's hands, to look forward to hearing Him say, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant," to have confidence of life with no more tears or sorrow – that is the ultimate stress relief. It makes our temporary afflictions down here endurable.
I hope you will be cured of cancer, or live a long life in spite of it. Most of all, I hope I will see you in heaven. If so, we will have new bodies that never get old, never get sick, and are filled with vitality, with which to worship the Lord of all creation (see I Corinthians 15). Until then, we can choose to use our time wisely: "Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (v. 58).
If you were helped with this blog entry, I'd like to hear from you. Feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for dropping by. Best wishes for many more days of stress-free, healthful, joyful life!