An optimist’s approach to the Big C

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Sooner or later most of us will stare cancer in the face.  It could be our own or someone else’s diagnosis but either way, how prepared would we be to cope?  

Sue Mackey was better equipped than most to deal with a scary diagnosis – an aggressive type of breast cancer.  She’d trained as a nurse, was married to a psychologist and knew a lot about positive psychology.

But confronted with chemotherapy, radiotherapy, mastectomy – and the possibility of death– even she struggled.  While her medical team worked on treating the cancer in her breast, there was little to help her deal with the fear in her head.   

This is no rare situation. One in two people are diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85 and more of them – 68 per cent- now survive to the five year mark, generally considered a cure.

“Yet when you look at the size of the problem there’s a lack of guidance on coping with the emotional stress  – even though the experience of cancer can be such a challenge to your mental health,” says 54-yearold Mackey who’s filled the gap herself with Positive Oncology,  a guide to how positive psychology can help deal with the psychological turmoil of cancer.

“Positive psychology isn’t ‘happy-ology’. It’s about building resilience and it teaches you how to sit with the dark moments. I still wake up at night worrying that the cancer will come back – and that’s normal,” she says. “But I’ve learned to sit there and let it pass like a thought cloud. When you have cancer you feel like you’ve lost control but positive psychology helps you manage your thoughts better.

“Self-hypnosis was a big help to me – it induces a deep relaxation response to quieten the mind and it helped me with sleep and with chemo.”

Practising gratitude was another strategy – especially keeping a Best Moments Journal in which she wrote down the best moments of each day.

“During the day I found myself looking for the best moments so I could jot them down. It could be something really small like patting the dog or drinking a cup of peppermint tea but it helped keep me in a more positive frame of mind. You have to have ways of settling the white noise of worry in your head and learn to redirect your thoughts. I’d think of ways that cancer would give me an opportunity – an opportunity to be brave, to inspire others and get support from others.”

Somehow Mackey kept on working – and even going to the gym although she’s aware that not everyone can do that.

“I did most things I normally did – just more slowly. Exercise was so helpful – there’s some evidence that it reduces fatigue during chemotherapy.  People think ‘I have cancer; I’d better stay on the couch’ but you can do a lot of ruminating on the couch,” she says.

“When I was first diagnosed, I cried for three days – then I told myself I’ve got to dig deep and be brave. There’s a well of courage inside us and even if you think you can’t be brave, you can. Courage is like a muscle and it can be strengthened. “

As for how others can help, ‘be normal’ is her advice.

“Don’t ignore the topic of cancer, be interested – but then move on and talk about other things. “Your ‘pity radar’ is very sensitive when you have cancer and if people act as if you’re a victim then you feel like one. You need people to be uplifting not catastrophising – and you need them be normal,” says Mackey who’s been cancer-free for three years. “But be wary of words like ‘survivor’, ‘battle’ and ‘journey’ – they might be inspiring to some people but others can find them annoying.

“People can also help by offering support in practical ways like walking the dog, doing the ironing or setting up a roster with other friends to cook dinner and drop it in. But it’s good to offer a specific thing that you can do rather than say ‘let me know what I can do’  because when you have cancer you don’t have time to think about what people can do for you.”  

Positive Oncology: An optimistic approach to the big C by Sue Mackey is published by Balboa Press, $15.00

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