Survivor * Speaker * Motivator
Laurie MacCaskill on Emotional Health
Most people desire to be independent, to manage life with a sense of control. Having a plan makes it seem we are approaching our goals and aspirations.
However, when I heard those devastating words, “I’m sorry, you have pancreatic cancer,” my world was suddenly full of vulnerability and uncertainty. I replied, in a cavalier way, “I do not. That’s a death sentence. You have the wrong file. Please get the right one.” I honestly thought my two-month-long backache was the result of an infection and could not fathom it was something so much more threatening.
Here is what was going through my mind during my journey and a few tips I discovered along the way:
Shock, fear, disbelief—I was in perfect health, an exercise enthusiast. I barely knew what the pancreas did! How could this have happened, and what could I have done differently? Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon reaction for most cancer patients, who feel their choices must have somehow led to their diagnosis.
The Laurie I had known for the last 55 years was gone. I felt such sadness, like I was mourning her. Cancer was such a foreboding word and pancreatic cancer—well, it took a while to wrap my head around it.
From the outset, I was determined this disease was not going to “own” me. The first thing I did to overcome the shock was put a plan into action. I selected my surgeon, oncologist and assembled my team. Having my support system in place gave me a sense of control and of owning my situation.
It is important to manage your options carefully. While time is of the essence, you can’t do it all at once, and it may take longer than you’d like to get everything in place. Believe in yourself with the immediate decisions you make and understand your plans will be fluid. Family and friends will have many suggestions and resources, and you should also discuss medical history with your family members. You can make changes—nothing is set in stone.
These initial steps allowed me to manage my fears, emotions, and concerns. I allowed for flexibility and change. We can’t always control the situation, but we can control our emotions and response to what is going on.
I was committed to a sustained effort to get back in shape and lead a normal life. I had absolutely no idea what lay ahead. Now, sixteen years later, my advice when I coach patients is that this disease is unlike a job, relationship, or any activity that you have ever undertaken. In our lives, for the most part, we have the ability to obtain the answers and resources required to reach a desired solution. This is not always possible with pancreatic cancer. Do your homework, use your voice, and listen to your instincts, but know you can’t do this alone. It is critical for patients to listen to their doctors.
How do you live when everyone is telling you the odds are not in your favor? It is important to adjust our lens to move forward. Mental discipline is a choice in overcoming any challenge. I had no idea the significance of adaptability and what a role it would play in navigating this unchartered territory. A positive mindset helps to adjust to a new normal—for now—and to deal with unwanted changes in healthy and hopeful ways. Surround yourself with things that bring you joy. This list is long for me, but I found flowers and plants—their beauty and life—inspiring.
Your body can stand almost anything. It’s your mind that you must change!
Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.
Exercise boosts our immune system, and even a single workout can help to fight off germs, according to the latest research. There were many times when I could barely walk, and the thought of performing any exercise was unfathomable. This was such a foreign emotion for someone who had always enjoyed exercise and outdoor activities. However, I soon found that a slow, short walk around the block reenergized me. I could not compare my efforts to what I had been capable of before, but making the effort to get out of bed and walk as far as I could renewed and restored my spirits, and most importantly, gave me hope!
Acknowledge the emotion (fear, stress, pain) and label it, which will help you process and manage it
Part of life is falling down. Living life is getting back up. Most of us are stronger than we give ourselves credit for. I can say now I am grateful for my struggles because they have allowed me to find my strength. Reflect on a time when you pulled yourself through a crisis and the skills you used. You will find inner strength you didn’t know you had.
The more you praise and celebrate life, the more there is in life to celebrate. I celebrate all of YOU this very special month—Cancer Survivor month.