by Paul Brenner M.D., Ph.D.
“The mind is both a healer and a slayer.” … Kenneth R. Pelletier M.D., PhD.
“Am I going to be able to pay my credit card bill?”
“Did I have spinach stuck in my teeth that whole time?”
“Is my neighbor angry at me?”
Even when we are in the best of physical health, our minds can be filled with negative thoughts about the future and the past, obscuring the present moment. How often do you find yourself worrying about something that hasn’t even happened, or that happened long ago? Try keeping track over the course of a day. You’ll probably start losing track once you hit the hundreds.
Understandably, that negative tendency seems to get amplified tenfold when people are diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly a whole new slew of questions is introduced:
“When is my next blood marker?”
“How about my PET or MRI?”
“What if I had eaten better?”
“Am I going to make the wedding?”
“Will I live to see my grandchild?”
I am a psychosocial oncologist at the UCSD Health Systems San Diego Cancer Center, where I sit with my patients -– or as I like to call them, my patient-teachers. One of the most important messages I can give someone in my office is “you are not your cancer.”
Cancer is a disease of more than the body; following a diagnosis, both patients and survivors can face myriad emotions of anxiety, sadness, and depression that can impact their health and quality of life negatively. I have been a physician for over fifty years; having had my start as an obstetrician, I came to believe that a newborn child is not only a miracle, but also love made visible. That essence continues throughout our childhood and into adulthood. Cancer should not and cannot overtake it.
We can never allow cancer to dominate or define who we are, as it can negatively impact us on both a physical and spiritual level. Fear is a product of our perceptions. If, for instance, you see a car swerving off the street to hit you on the sidewalk, you correctly perceive it as a threat. In turn, the brain produces chemicals that prepare the body to react to each given stress. This is called the fight or flight response. This intermittent response to an immediate fear can be lifesaving if you are, for example, about to be hit by the aforementioned car. But if stress and fear become chronic over something that may or may not happen (i.e. cancer taking over your body), it takes a toll on the body, diminishing the expression of the immune system and literally weakening your body’s ability fight back.
On the flipside, according to the National Cancer Institute, spiritual well-being may help improve health and quality of life in many ways. It can decrease anxiety, depression, anger, and discomfort. It can reduce the sense of isolation. It can lower blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, help you adjust to the effects of cancer and its treatment, and increase the ability to enjoy life during cancer treatment.
The anatomical mechanisms for those positive effects are still being studied on a molecular level; in the mean time, know that you are not responsible for creating your illness, but you are responsible for responding to it. People with chronic illness can co-create with their physicians and their various therapeutic modalities by resolving, as best they can, the stresses and fears within their lives. I advise patients to observe their thoughts and control those that are negative, fearful, or anxiety provoking. When a negative or redundant thought is perceived and continues to fill their consciousness, I tell them to simply repeat to themselves a single word. I personally use the word Delete over and over again for about ten seconds. This simple process can cancel negative thoughts for a prolonged period of time. Or, I tell patients to just clap their hands as a distraction. And finally, the one I most recently use for myself, “I am love. That can’t be my thought.” I found that if I use this healing phrase my thought patterns are cleansed and I’m filled with calm. If you or a loved one are facing a cancer diagnosis, I advise working closely with a mental health professional to find an anxiety coping mechanism that works best for you.
I have been living with cancer for fifteen years. Early on, I observed how many of my thoughts were either unhealthy or focused on the future or past. One day, I realized my mind could not hold two thoughts simultaneously, that the negative anxieties were outweighing the positive awareness of everything that was so wonderful in the world around me. I found that it helped me to devise skills to control thoughts, and to help me realize that I am not my cancer.
Along the way, I have learned from my patient-teachers about the healing power of love. They have taught me to accept life with all its beauty and with all its thorns. They have instilled in me that fear is the enemy of love. And perhaps most importantly, love is the absence of fear. We cannot allow anything to diminish who we are, physically or emotionally: not cancer, nor life’s experiences.
Dr. Paul Brenner, a renowned physician and psychosocial oncologist, began his career as a gynecologist. During a sabbatical, Paul serendipitously began to counsel patients with life-threatening illnesses. As a result, he stopped practicing medicine in traditional ways and saw one person a day with a chronic or terminal illness. Fascinated by how emotions integrate the mind and body, Paul obtained a doctorate in counseling psychology, and studied healing in South America, Taiwan, and China. For the past fifty years, he has been in search of what makes an individual chronically ill or well. His book Buddha in the Waiting Room (New Age Books, 2003) tells of this quest to redefine health as a living process. He has appeared on public television and moderated the award-winning KPBS series Healing Through Communication.
Published in Stand Up to Cancer newsletter
April 19, 2013