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Coping With Everyday Life

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What This Blog is About

This blog is devoted to discussing how to cope with everyday life, and your hosts (see menu listing of your four blog hosts) will post information from the world of psychology, counseling, and education. Our message revolves around three basic themes: First there is acceptance. There are certain basic truths in life that we simply must accept before we can decide how to act. Second is the notion of meeting challenges. Unfortunately, too often we avoid challenges that confront us because it’s the easy thing to do. Successful coping, however, requires us to take a more difficult road and meet life head on. Third, we must learn what things are under our control. We get in all sorts of difficulties when we try to control things we can’t. The truth is there are only two things we can control: Our own thoughts and our own actions.

We invite our readers to join in our discussion and share their own insights. This blog is not an advice column, but a forum in which to share ideas.

If you are interested in pursuing the psychology literature on any topic we cover, feel free to contact us by email at charlesbrooks@kings.edu. We also encourage you to visit our website (www.subtlesuicide.com) to learn about our published books on subtle suicide, dysfunctional giver/taker relationships, and research on how psychology applies to everyday life.

PERPETUATING CHILD ABUSE

Last week we talked about child abuse and considered one hypothesis about possible dynamics involved in at least some cases. Let’s look at another dimension to the problem of child abuse.

Years ago I was talking with the Director of a daycare facility. This particular daycare was registered with the local Juvenile Court, and children who had been removed from a parent’s care for safety were often placed in the facility during the day. The Director was sharing some of her observations in her facility of toddler-age kids (around 2) who had been removed from physically-abusive homes.

She said, “We often have a child who gets frustrated about something, angry over a toy, or any of a number of things, and starts crying. A lot of times one of the other kids shows some concern. I’ve seen them go to a crying kid and offer a toy, or ask, ‘What’s wrong?’ in a soothing way. Never, however….never have I seen a child from an abusive home behave in any sympathetic way toward another child. Right now we have two children from abused homes who have been placed with us by the courts. Just the other day, a child was pounding some blocks together and accidentally hit her finger. She was really crying and I noticed how many of our kids were looking over to see what was going on. Three or four actually came over and acted like they wanted to help the staff member who was comforting the child. The two abused kids? One was totally ignoring the commotion and going on with his playing; the other came over and shoved the crying child, shouting, ‘Shut up or I’ll beat you!’ I thought, my God, the kid is already a child abuser and he’s only 2!” Later she added, “You want to produce adult child abusers? Abuse them when they’re children!”

Years ago I was home one afternoon when I heard a crash against the front door and lots of yelling. I ran and opened the door and there was our 9-year old daughter, just home from school, and another girl I didn’t know, who ran when I opened the door. Our house was just a few yards from the school bus stop, and apparently the girl had chased our daughter right onto our porch and shoved her pretty good before I arrived.

Our daughter told me this girl regularly bullied her on the school bus, and this day decided to chase her. She said the girl lived just a block away and gave me her last name. “Oh, great,” I thought, “I’ve got to call this girl’s parents about this and complain.” I would rather navigate a mine field than confront parents I didn’t know. After all, some parents attack coaches who don’t play their kids enough! But then I looked at my panicky daughter……………

The girl’s last name and street was in the phone book, so I dialed the number (this was around 1979, guys!). I introduced myself and confirmed that this was the mother of the girl. I said, “Ma’am, your daughter just chased my daughter down the street to our house and attacked her right on our porch! We really need to do something about this”

“Well,” she said with clear anger in her tone, “my daughter just got home and told me how your daughter said I was a whore! What about that?” I thought, “Damn, this is going downhill in a hurry.”

“Ma’am, I promise you, I will talk to my daughter and guarantee that she will never say anything like that about you again. I apologize and understand why you’re upset. I would be, too.” [I know, you’re ready to barf but remember, if you want to soothe the wild beast, you need to play soft music.] “But, the fact is,” I continued, “We can’t have your daughter on our porch attacking our daughter. It’s not right.”

Pause. Silence. Was she loading the cannon for battle? Was she looking for her 6’6” 250lb husband to tell him to get the rifle out of the closet? My life was flashing before my eyes!

Finally, she calmly said, “You know something, I wish that last year I had done what you just did. Last year there was this older girl who bullied our daughter all the time, especially on the bus. I should have done what you did…..I should have called her mother and said we needed to do something. Instead, I just told our daughter to complain to the driver and sit as far from this girl as she could. I don’t believe it. Now she’s doing to your daughter what happened to her last year.”

For the next 5 minutes or so we commiserated about the impossible challenges facing parents. I made sure I showered her with understanding, still concerned she was married to the incredible hulk who would love to take me apart limb by limb. We worked out a good plan that presented consistent for the kids from their parents. I never talked to her again, and neither daughter ever again bothered the other again.

These two stories make the same point about child abuse: Being abused as a child will increase the odds that you will abuse children as an adult. How come? Just taking the first step in trying to answer that question will require some effort, so I’ll hold off until the next post.

DYNAMICS OF CHILD ABUSE

Child abuse can take many forms for many reasons. The boyfriend who puts out his cigarettes on his girlfriend’s child’s stomach, a child from another boyfriend, may have different psychological issues driving the action than the mother who regularly beats her two-year old, or than the young man who forces sexual acts on a 12-year old boy. All the actions are heinous, but we’re often frustrated in our efforts to understand and deal with child abusers because each case has unique features.

A colleague once described some preliminary data from his research. Some participants were moms who had physically abused and neglected their child, and, through court rulings, had temporarily lost custody of the child and been ordered to attend counseling sessions. A second group of moms also had one child, but had “normal,” stable home lives. For both groups, the moms’ child was between 2 and 5.

Each mom was tested individually. They were first wired up to a polygraph to measure physiological signs of arousal (heart rate, respiration, palm sweating), and then they watched two videos. One showed an infant smiling while lying on a mattress; the other showed an infant crying loudly while lying on a mattress. After each video the moms were asked how they felt while watching it, and what they thought was going on with the infant.

When the non-abusive moms watched the smiling video, they showed no physiological arousal. They said the video was pleasant to watch; the infant was obviously happy and enjoying interacting with whomever was present. The abusive moms, however, showed elevated physiological arousal when watching the smiling tape. Their interpretations of what the infant was feeling, however, were somewhat mixed. They said things like, “I’m not sure what’s going on”; “The kid may be tricking the caregiver into giving it something sweet”; “It may be burping and causing its expression.”  These moms did not enjoy watching the tape and seemed unsure about what was going on.

When the non-abusive moms watched the crying video, they show increased physiological arousal. This tape was very unpleasant for them, and they all said words like, “He’s really upset about something. Probably hungry, or needs to be changed, or just needs to be held and cuddled and talked to.” The abusive moms? They also showed increased physiological arousal to the crying tape. However, they interpreted the crying as criticism directed at the caregiver. “This baby is really angry at whoever is taking care of him. He’s saying that she’s doing a lousy job.”

So, what’s going on here? The researchers hypothesized that the abusive moms were poor at reading social signals from the infant. A smile, a cry…..what do they mean? What do they tell me I need to do? Abusive moms, the psychologists believe, just can’t interpret social signals. For most of us, a smile usually means, “I’m happy and love you”; a frown or cry means, “I’m hurting and need you to care for me.” Unable to sort out this information in their daily interactions with their child, the abusive moms get frustrated, angry, and lash out physically at the helpless child. Plus, when the child acts irritated, the moms conclude he is irritated at them.

Where could this insensitivity to social cues come from? One possible cause is that the abusive moms were raised in abusive homes. In fact, nearly 40% of the moms in this study indicated their childhood home was physically abusive. Imagine being raised in a home where you’re spanked, hit, pushed, and yelled at on a regular basis, regardless of what you do; whether you reach out lovingly to parents, or show anger toward them, or try to avoid them, the result is the same: anger and rejection aimed at you.

Being raised in such a world would make social signals a mystery to you: “What do I have to do to give and receive support and affection?” Simply put, this childrearing pattern makes it difficult to learn how to give and receive love. Thus, in other settings, when someone reaches out, you don’t know how to react. And when you don’t know how to react to a signal, that signal becomes aversive, a threat that reminds you of your inadequacies. And so it is for our abusive moms: “Why are you smiling? What do you want from me? What am I supposed to do? Damn you!” The crying infant? “OK, I get it…I’m a lousy mother. Why do you have to remind me? Damn you!”

The lesson here about social signals has broad relevance for everyday interactions far beyond cases of child abuse. Most of us, for instance, are not threatened by social signals from others because we recognize them and know how to react. But what about the young man who ends relationships as soon as the girl begins to get serious? What’s his problem? Deep inside is he anxious about commitment because he never really learned how to give and receive love? Are such positive expressions toward others mysterious psychological threats that must be avoided? If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know precisely the negative coping consequences of avoidance.

One final word: problems deciphering social signals are in no way the explanation for all cases of child abuse. As we said at the beginning of this post, each case is different and unique. Think of trying to analyze human behavior as doing a challenging puzzle. You may have three people before you, each one a child abuser, but each one will have different pieces to their puzzle. Yes, some pieces will appear in all three puzzles, but for the most part, each puzzle will have pieces not found in the others. Sensitivity to social signals is such a puzzle piece; it may appear in many, but not all, cases of child abuse.

 

 

 

 

COORDINATE ACTIONS WITH VALUES

In a recent post, we noted that coping with everyday life is like having conversations with life. As we said, every day you chat with life. A lot of these talks have to do with being happy. Sometimes you’re mad because you want to be happy, and life is not cooperating. So you shout out, “I’ve had it with you life; you stink!” Other times you’re on top of the world, happy (at least momentarily) and exclaim, “Life, you’re fantastic!” The problem is, even though these extreme reactions capture the moment, they’re lousy for having a conversation because they don’t last. So what’s missing?

As an analogy let’s consider a phenomenon from the world of perception. Imagine sitting in a dark room and in front of you are two small lights, maybe the size of a pea, and a couple of feet apart. The lights begin blinking in sequence: left light blinks on and off followed by the right light blinking on and off, then back to the left, etc. When asked what you see you say, “Two lights blinking on and off in sequence.”

Next, let’s begin shortening the time between the blinks until the time between the left blink and the right blink gets into milliseconds. At some point, your perception changes, and you say, “I don’t see two lights anymore. Now I see one light jumping back and forth.” Interesting. You are now perceiving a new property in your visual field: movement. Notice that neither light is moving, but when we structure the viewing conditions in a particular way, the experience of perceiving movement has emerged in your experience. No movement exists except in your perception; your reality has become dependent on an act of your mind.

“OK,” you ask, “what does all this philosophical mumbo-jumbo have to do with conversations with life?” Well, consider happiness. You can circle a future date on your calendar and write, “Will weigh 132lbs or less,” “Will be able to run a mile in less than 10 minutes,” or, “Will be smoking zero cigarettes.” You cannot, however, realistically circle a future date and write, “Will have achieved lasting happiness.” Wouldn’t that be nice? The fact is, like the movement in our perception example, happiness is something that must emerge, evolve, be created by you, specifically by structuring your environment in ways that will allow you to perform certain actions that bring you satisfaction, contentment, and intrinsic feelings of accomplishment.

“That sounds great,” you say, “but how do I go about restructuring things to make that satisfaction emerge?” The answer is actually pretty simple: You must coordinate your actions with your values. It’s amazing how easily you can overlook this basic truth about effective coping. Coping problems develop when you ignore your values and engage in actions that are inconsistent with those values. For instance, you put off investigating diets (an action) that may work for you even though you say, “I care about my health” (your value); you put off joining a gym (an action) even though you say, “I want to get in shape” (your value); you put off spending more time with your kids and spouse (an action), even though you say, “I value family” (your value); you put off signing up for a course at the local community college (an action), even though you say, “I want to become more educated” (your value).

Most resolutions –“I will do this,” or “I will do that” — fail because you do not connect your actions and your values. If you want good feelings to emerge from what you do, you must first identify those things that you really value, the things that are important to you, and then resolve to coordinate them with specific actions. Once you identify your values and choose appropriate constructive actions, those actions will tend to become a part of your routine; they will become automatic and it won’t take much effort to maintain them, making them more likely to result in the emergence of positive feelings.

Suppose you come into a lot of money, maybe through an inheritance, winning a personal injury suit, or hitting the lottery. You’re rolling in the dough and you’re happy. But as time goes by you realize you’re squandering the money on material things you don’t need. You’re still rich, but now you’re unhappy. You have no strategic plan for investing the money, or making it work for you to achieve some values-oriented results. So you do some soul searching. “What is really important to me in life? What sorts of values really define who I am?”

Suppose you discover that you genuinely want to reach out and help those less fortunate. You decide that a plan to put your money to work for the betterment of society would be a kind of self-actualization for you. You don’t want to toss money frivolously in others’ laps, but you want to structure a plan to make your money work for the welfare of others over the long run. So, with the help of a financial advisor you develop a foundation that for years and years will finance inner-city initiatives to improve the lives of kids who are willing to show a work ethic and improve their education and social conscience.

As time goes on you begin receiving letters from successful men and women who profited from your foundation. An observer might say to you, “When you read those letters you must really feel happy.” You reply, “Happy? I guess so, but I think I feel more satisfied, completed, contented, knowing that I have contributed in some way to the betterment of humanity.”

Here’s the really nice thing: When you coordinate your actions to your values, you will find you don’t have to be rich to have a positive effect on your world. When your values enter the picture, you time, your energy, your brawn, and your brain can express your humanity in magnificent ways. You feel worthwhile in many ways, and you don’t have to get hung up on an elusive search for happiness.

 

 

 

OPTIMISM MUST FOCUS ON ACTIONS

An eminent psychologist told how when he was young, he bought into his parents’ encouragement when they said he could be anything he wanted to be. “So I decided I would be a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs when I grew up. Of course, as I grew older, it slowly dawned on me that I had nowhere near the requisite skills to be a major league ballplayer. Mom and dad were wrong.”

So what did our famous psychologist do? Did he quit life and blame his parents for all his misfortune? Absolutely not. He focused realistically and positively on his strengths, and worked hard to develop those skills. The point is, when stressed over failure, you must focus on doing a realistic appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses and base your actions on them. Do a behavior inventory of daily activities. Are they actions that make you feel more adequate and bring you satisfaction? Cultivate those actions that make you feel productive. Remember that praise from others is nice to hear, but actions that bring you personal fulfillment are much more important in enhancing psychological growth.

Make efforts to interact with people who complement you and your actions. Maintain your autonomy in those interactions because independent action increases personal satisfaction. If material rewards come from actions that make you feel productive, consider the rewards icing on the cake, not the reason you’re baking the cake. Exercise caution about using mood-altering prescription medication until you have done a thorough behavior inventory. Appreciate and enjoy the little things, especially those that are consistent with your values. Perhaps a smile from a child, a quiet walk in the park, contacting a friend, a good movie or book, helping others in need….those things that bring you satisfaction. If you are spiritual, use faith to give you confidence and remind you everything is not for you to control, but you can develop the courage to challenge things under your control.

Coping with your life from a realistic optimistic perspective will spur you to empower yourself and initiate autonomous actions that will give you feelings of personal control. Coping with your life from a pessimistic perspective will encourage you to turn sheepishly to others to manage, direct, and control your actions. Would you seek counseling expecting the therapist to wave a magic wand and make you all better? Do you look for the miracle drug to turn your life around and transform you into a new person? Those are dead-end roads, folks.

But you must understand and accept that coping with challenges in your life may be worthwhile but it’s not always easy. You’re going to have to put forth some effort to determine what you can control, and focus your actions within that context.

 

 

 

 

 

OPTIMISM AND HEALTH

You probably know people who see the cup as half-empty, and others who see it as half-full. Optimists and pessimists, right? You probably label others and yourself as one type or the other, but you would probably like to be an optimist about most things. One thing for sure is that if you’re like most people, you don’t like being around pessimists and grouches who bring you down by always looking on the dark side. Let’s face it, a pessimistic spouse is a threat to marital stability; a pessimistic work colleague is a threat to productivity and morale; a pessimistic friend is……..well, a soon-to-be-former friend.

Some say being a pessimist is an appropriate way to view reality. To a pessimist, the optimist is unrealistic. For instance, a couple may have plans for a golf outing. The wife says, “Did you hear the weather forecast? And look at those clouds. Our golf round is going to be ruined. What a bummer. I hate rain.”

Well, there’s no doubt that the expectation of rain mirrors what may be shaping up as reality, but the optimistic husband might point out: “Yeh, looks bad. Put the golf clubs away. Remember that movie we’ve been wanting to watch? Let’s make some popcorn and hot chocolate and have a movie afternoon.”

The pessimist’s retort? “But the forecast calls for bad thunderstorms, heavy winds, and possible downed power lines. Why get involved in a movie and then have the power go out?”

“Screw it then,” he responds, “I’m going drinking with the guys.” Uh, oh, here comes another argument!

When we talk about optimism and pessimism, realism is not the issue; the issue is how you respond to reality. If you’re a downer, your social life will suffer. Who wants to be around someone who generally looks on the dark side of things? But not only does your outlook influence how you get along with other people, it also can affect your physical health. Can an optimistic approach to life translate into good physical health? Does pessimism increase your odds of getting sick? The answers might surprise you.

Some studies have actually exposed volunteers to cold viruses. Lively, energetic, cheerful, optimistic, and relaxed folks tended to get fewer colds than sad, nervous, pessimistic, and short-tempered volunteers. Another study found that optimistic first-year law students had better immune system functioning than pessimistic students. Optimism has also been found to be associated with a higher number of infection-fighting killer cells in the immune system, lower rates of stroke, and reduced rate of cardiovascular problems.

The health-enhancing effects of an optimistic attitude are pretty well established, but let’s take it a step further: can optimism guarantee you a long and healthy life? The key word there is “guarantee,” and the answer is, “Of course not, no more than are eating a healthy diet, exercising, and not smoking guarantees you a long and healthy life.” Whereas a positive outlook can bolster your immune system, there is little evidence that such an outlook can increase your longevity or cure you from an already-contracted disease. For instance, survival rates for terminal cancer patients is not affected by whether the patient is an optimist or a pessimist. Of course, optimists with cancer are likely to enjoy what time they have left than pessimists.

One thing for sure, whether we’re talking longevity or cure, compared to pessimists, optimists are likely to have a higher quality of life, and we mean both physical and psychological quality. When it comes to effective coping, it pays to be an optimist, as long as you’re realistic about it. Optimists are more likely to succeed and develop a “can-do” attitude about life’s obstacles, characteristics that will trigger their immune systems to be stronger and give them a healthier attitude about stress. Optimism is a great psychological support system. And remember, you are not born as an optimist or pessimist. You can learn to cultivate a positive outlook in yourself. You can learn to think about events in your lives more accurately, objectively, realistically, and rationally. In short, you can learn to confront adversity in more positive ways.

There is no doubt about the power of optimistic actions for your physical and psychological well-being. When you are guided by realistic optimism, your immune system will probably function better. You will also be more likely to see problems and difficulties in life as challenges that can be met and overcome, and you will be more likely to be liked by others. Finally, when you fail you will probably analyze how to correct your mistakes rather than simply blame yourself as being unworthy and weak.

 

PERCEPTIONS OF REALITY

To cope effectively, you must evaluate how you respond to reality. If you’re a downer, you’ll find yourself in conflict with others, and eventually alone. Your emotional approach to life will influence your social network and the number of supportive friends you have. Ask yourself: “How do I explain my life circumstances?” We all experience failure and have setbacks; we are all rejected at times by others. How do you interpret these events in general? Do you blame yourself? Sometimes you are to blame, but if self-blame is your habitual pattern of approaching setbacks, you’re setting yourself up for future problems.

For instance, how would you react if the president of the company you work for called you in to pick your brain about a proposed strategic plan? If you are prepared and see meeting him in his office as a chance to demonstrate your skills, you are viewing the session as a challenge you can meet successfully. Your preparation and optimistic frame of mind will put you in a relaxed and confident state that will increase the likelihood the president will be impressed. But if you view the situation as threatening, as something that will expose your weaknesses and shortcomings, your pessimistic outlook will almost guarantee that what you fear will indeed happen. Your pessimistic demeanor will make you more defensive, less likeable, and the meeting just might be what you thought it would be – a disaster.

Your views of reality must also be realistic. Young people often look at their future as some sort of hopeful fantasy world, and adults can also fall victim to this tendency, especially if they are insecure about the future. One of my college students invited me to sit in on a presentation about her research to a 10th-grade high-school class. When she was done, the teacher asked if any of the kids had a question for her about becoming a psychologist. One kid blurted out, “No psychology for me; I’m going to be a Bill Gates and make billions.” The teacher pointed out that he needed to improve his grades so he could get into a good college. The kid replied, “Bill Gates dropped out of college so I don’t need to go to college to become rich.” Maybe so, but the kid was overlooking the fact that Gates dropped out of Harvard, which means he had a proven high-school record of high grades and other indices of high intelligence and a strong work ethic. I could only wonder, “Does this kid think he has the stuff to gain admission to Harvard?”

One last thing to note is that your perception of reality need not be based on how “happy” you are. Effective coping does not require that you try to achieve “happiness.” Good coping means developing a realistic and optimistic lifestyle, not a momentary state of being, that empowers you to initiate autonomous actions to give you feelings of personal control and satisfaction. On the other hand, developing a pessimistic perspective and waiting for your “ship to come in” will encourage you to turn sheepishly to others to manage, direct, and control your actions. That’s what happens when adults turn to cult leaders, charismatic politicians, and even parents, to direct their lives and tell them how to think. Pessimism fosters dependency on another. Such dependency is the enemy of objectivity, and it precludes effective coping.

There’s really no secret to effective coping. In your personal struggles with everyday life, your focus must be realistic, optimistic, and guided by your values (which we’ll have more to say about in a later post) and your capabilities. From that context will emerge a productive and satisfying way of living.

June 7, 2018: We are re-posting Mike’s story about coping with cancer, first posted on October 8, 2017. Mike’s employer has created a Go Fund Me account: https://www.gofundme.com/mikescancerjourneyfund

October 8, 2017: Today’s guest writer shares some thought-provoking beliefs about the journey that is life. Although the specific coping actions he takes may not be for you, the philosophy behind his actions is consistent with themes we try to develop in this blog. His powerful comments are certainly a model for us all to consider.

THE CHALLENGE OF CANCER, SHARED BY A COPING ROLE MODEL

September 28, 2016

My wife and I moved recently to Cocoa Beach, Florida from the Tampa Bay area. We try to make it a point every day to go for a walk to the beach to see the sunrise and greet the new day. That is where we met Charlie Brooks.

After a period of weeks of passing by one another on the beach, he cautiously inquired of the lemon-size growth on the right side of my neck. By now, I am pretty comfortable giving an explanation to those who ask. I said, “It’s a tumor.” I explained my condition further and described a little of how I deal with it.

So how do I cope with stage-four cancer? A good place to start is “one day at a time.”

A little background:

For almost eight years now, I have been dealing with the fact that I have cancer. 2008 was a most difficult and stressful time in my life. After eighteen years of marriage, my wife walked out and began divorce proceedings. Estranged from my young daughters, without friends or family nearby, I felt abandoned in a place I no longer wanted to be. I trudged thru those tumultuous days one at a time, but to be honest, I really was not coping very well with everyday life. 

In December 2008, I came down with the flu or what I would describe as flu-like symptoms (the apartment I moved into weeks before had a very bad mold and mildew problem and may have contributed to my illness). Both my glands on my neck swelled and were very sore. After several weeks I regained my health but the gland on my right side of my neck never returned to its normal size. I did research on what might be the cause and how to self-treat it, but for the most part I ignored it believing it would go away in time (like everything else, this too shall pass).

As a spiritual person (I had served as a minister for twelve years), I had been praying that something has to change in my life. I was mentally and physically tired. This change would either have to come from beyond my control or from within myself. I made some changes in my life to help cope. I returned to congregational worship on Sundays. I spent time at the local library searching their music collection, listening to music and reading books. I also set up a Facebook account.

In March 2009, I received an email from a former girlfriend of whom I had not had contact with since I was a teenager (answer to prayer?). What was really strange is that I had not reached out to her and she had no idea where I was in my life. We spent hours on the phone rekindling our relationship which began some 32 years earlier. I made the decision to relocate to Florida where she was living. Four months later we were married and have been inseparable ever since. She has been my sunshine helping me cope with everyday life.

The growth on my neck.

It took some time to settle in, to become employed and to obtain health insurance. During that time, the growth continued to develop. In 2011, I decided to go to an ear, nose and throat doctor (Otolaryngologist), who also performs head and neck surgery. I had several tests run, the results of which revealed I had non-small cell carcinoma (squamous cell). “It is malignant,” he said. My heart dropped. These were words I never thought I would hear concerning my life. So now what? Where do we go from here?

The doctor explained his next steps to treat the cancer. The protocol involved another test, then undergoing surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Regarding the surgery, he said he may have to remove a portion of my tongue, my voice box, and part of my jaw bone which would require reconstructive surgery. He added, “You will also have to learn to eat and speak again. Even so, you are looking at a possible five-year life expectancy.” He actually gave the odds of life expectancy but I no longer remember what he said. I do not believe they were in my favor. I left his office devastated by the results and distraught over his medical recommendations (his bedside manner was lacking to say the least).

I returned home, sat down with my wife, and explained to her what the doctor said. That night was pretty much a blur as far as remembering our feelings, emotions and words. As for me, I now had some medical answers for my condition. What was left to do was to decide how to proceed.

I gave myself a few days to mull over the doctor’s words and allow things to settle in my mind. I held off telling my daughters, family, and employers until I could come to a resolution. Life at this point hadn’t really changed. My wife loved me. I was working, and doing all the things I did prior to learning of my prognosis. But internally, I was grieving and going through a grief process. I sought to compartmentalize the cancer, dealing with my thoughts and feelings a little at a time. Even now, this seems to be, in part, how I cope with my condition. It is not something I think about all the time. The bottom line was and is acceptance of the fact that I have been diagnosed with a malignant form of cancer.

Decision Time

It was really the decision-making process that helped form my ability to cope with cancer. Knowing what I have is not enough to put my mind at ease. What do I do about it and to what degree or cost am I willing to subject myself, my wife and family to in order to gain some sense of well-being? Thus began a journey of researching and discovering my options from Western to Eastern medicine. This was not just a medical experience, but a very personal human event.

Having been a minister for twelve years, generally working with congregations with older members, I witnessed first-hand the results of cancer-treatments in different parts of the country. Part of ministry is meeting people at their most critical times of their lives and being of service to them. However, for the most part, I was less than thrilled with their outcomes. This was not about their faith experience, but the physical struggles they experienced during and after treatment, not to mention the great cost of medical expenses incurred by those families.

Many would confide in me that if their cancer returned, they would not undergo the treatment again. I thought to myself, “If this is the best this country has to offer, I’ll pass.” I developed a mind-set then and still refer back to it to help cope with everyday life and that is, there is a difference between quality of life vs. quantity of life (live well vs. live long). I believe it is within our nature to strive for both, but when our failing physical health becomes a factor in determining length of life, the quality of life becomes primary. I should also state at this time, that my mother had died of pancreatic cancer. She began to undergo chemotherapy but discontinued the treatment due to the side effects. The treatment would not be a cure and she had only months to live. I remember one of her last words she spoke to me. She said, she never thought her life would end this way.   

With the full support of my wife, I decided I would not pursue nor undergo surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. I did attempt to have only the tumor removed without undergoing the other treatments, but no doctor I contacted would consider doing so due to liability. 

I emailed the doctor I originally received my diagnosis from and informed him I had chosen not to undergo cancer treatment. I received an email from him, telling me, “Good luck, you’ll be dead within three months.” I did not respond and it only made me more determined to pursue other forms of treatment.

I should note that this response is not just tied to western medicine physicians. One alternative medicine doctor suggested to me that I should quit work and spend my days meditating near a pond and contemplate life. He may have meant well, but to me, that was the same as saying, why don’t you just resign yourself to the fact that you are going to die. Just curl up and wait to die.

Over the years since being first diagnosed, I have undergone several forms of alternative medicine treatments (cost is always a factor, as health insurance does not cover alternative medicine). There are many different forms of treatments available outside the U.S., but the cost, time away from work, travel, and treatment, make these unattainable for most.    

I take a daily regimen of supplements (thanks to my wife), exercise and try to keep stress in my life at a minimal. Up until a few months ago, I was working sixty-three hours a week. I have reduced the number of hours to forty per week in order to pursue other personal interests. Whether or not any or all of this has contributed to beating the statistical odds, I do not know. What I do know is I am still here and living as normal a life as I did prior to the diagnosis. In fact, in a very real sense, I feel more alive than I did then. I do not take life for granted, but enjoy each and every moment of life and the good measure of health I have been blessed with on this day.

Some thoughts for me on my coping with everyday life –

1. Faith in God. I know not what tomorrow holds, but I know who holds tomorrow. God knows my life and nothing comes to me that does not first go through Him. I’m not seeking a miracle healing, though I desire to be healed in this life, but if healing doesn’t come, God is still God, and I will return to Him.

2. Connections between people and not possessions are what matters most.

3. Having an attitude of gratitude, thanksgiving, appreciation and forgiveness.

4. There is a song by Randy Stonehill. The lyrics state, “I’m gonna celebrate this heartbeat, cause it just might be my last. Every day is a gift from the Lord on high, and they all go by so fast.”

5. The only difference between my life and another is that I may know what I will die from. I say may because not even this is a guarantee.

6. The only things I have control over are my thoughts – what I believe — and my actions – what I do and how I respond based upon what I believe. Beyond that, things are beyond my control. It is enough.