By Dr Sinéad Lynch, Counselling Psychologist, and Marie Keating Foundation advocate

How many times have you heard cancer described as that “dreaded disease” or witnessed someone, often on the verge of tears, curse cancer like it is some unwanted guest who has stolen a life, a love, a breast? I have, numerous times, not only in my work as a counselling psychologist but as a friend and a daughter. I have listened, and understood from personal loss, how cancer “rips your world apart”, how cancer “invades your home leaving destruction in its path” and how cancer is simply “a f*cker”.

“A sensible approach to cancers (plural) should owe less to the language of the Pentagon and more to a local GP surgery.”

I’ll admit, I once described cancer in the same way after my mother was diagnosed with the disease.  I was a loyal soldier in the war on cancer using combat metaphors to explain how my mother was ‘fighting cancer’, how she was ‘braving her battle’ and how she was determined to win. All of which was true, until she died, and I realised using such rhetoric implied she was a loser for having ‘lost’ the fight. There was no battle with cancer, or a cancer as journalist Simon Jenkins suggests we say as he writes in the Guardian “A sensible approach to cancers (plural) should owe less to the language of the Pentagon and more to a local GP surgery. It would comfort thousands of ordinary mortals, who want to handle this illness like any other.”

The battle comes as it does with any disease. The agonising treatment, the soul shattering surgery, the pills, the nausea, the fatigue, the internal battle with oneself to often feel better and get on with it. This is what I found in undertaking my doctoral research on the emotional experience of having cancer. When examining the internal self-critical thoughts of participants in the study, most reported they often spoke harshly to themselves with phrases like “get over it” or “you can’t lay down and die”. Some said this was intended to spur them on and keep them motivated, while others reported that they felt they had no alternative. As one woman asked “What was I supposed to do, pity myself?”

Often, when faced with so much fear, when feeling so much pain, we find ways to bulldoze through our emotions. We tell ourselves to buck up and cop on. We call it tough love. But what I have found from my own experience, from the experiences of those who shared in my research, and from those who need to process the emotional aftermath in therapy, is that there is always an alternative to tough love. There is purely and simply, love.

And this is not self-pity

Pity looks down from on high and says “poor you”. Love stands beside and says “I am with you”. But choosing to replace the self-critical thoughts and inner voice that tell you that you ‘should’ be doing better, or that you ‘should’ be more grateful, or that you ‘should’ get up out of bed when all you want to do is sink under the covers, takes practice. Often just noticing your critical thoughts at work and stepping away from them is enough. Once we can change our harsh internal self-talk to a language of self-love we are on the path to living healthier, and happier lives.

As for the battle metaphors, a poll by Macmillan Cancer Support has found that many people with cancer are fed up with the language of war. They want to be treated like anyone else who is ill. But as with anything, there is no right or wrong way to react. For many, finding comrades to curse cancer is just what they need, and supporting each other is one of our greatest gifts as human beings. We just need to remember to lend a supportive hand to ourselves too, and a compassionate voice.

For more reading on cultivating your compassionate voice, see Paul Gilbert’s book The Compassionate Mind

To get in touch with Dr Sinéad Lynch contact the Marie Keating Foundation at www.mariekeating.ie

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