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Can People Ever Forget They Once Had Cancer?

01 Jun

A friend recently told me that, 6 years after her diagnosis and successful treatment for breast cancer, she's always on the lookout for signs of recurrence, especially when a check-up is looming, and she knows she'll soon be waiting for results from mammograms, scans and lab work.

She supposed that this was just the "new normal" and the way it would always be. She told me she'd manage it, just as she's managed many things. And I know she will.

But I was also reminded of a wonderful experience from maybe 18-20 years ago, at a drop-in cancer support group that was being run by two fabulous oncology nurses at University Hospitals of Cleveland.

Anyone touched by cancer could come, so there were people who were currently in treatment, and there were also people who'd been in remission for years, who just liked coming to the group to offer encouragement to others. And of course there was a good sprinkling of spouses, parent-child pairs and friends who would come too. The group averaged about 20 people per session.

I was the guest speaker for that week, there to demonstrate the value of listening to guided imagery during cancer treatment and after. I'd explain how imagery worked and then play samples of meditation audios that could help with fighting cancer, dealing with chemo or radiation therapy or just beefing up the immune system for longterm survivors.

And, because everyone was dealing with stress – family and friends as well as the patients – I'd show them how easy it was to relax and de-stress by listening to some guided imagery. It was always fun and gratifying to see how quickly even the super-anxious people could settle down.

The usual practice was to start the group by going around the room and having people introduce themselves. So we went from person to person until we got to an older couple. The man introduced himself as a guy in treatment for prostate cancer, currently undergoing radiation therapy. Then his wife, sitting next to him, gave her name and introduced herself by saying she was there to support her husband and to get tips from the group on how to better look after him.

We continued around the room. The woman whose turn was next gave her name and said she was being treated for breast cancer, and was there to get advice on how to handle annoying people who gave dumb advice or insensitive "coaching". The next person then introduced herself as a cancer survivor for the last dozen or so years, but who still liked coming to the group whenever she could.

This was when the wife of the guy with prostate cancer looked like a light bulb had just gone off in her head. She interrupted and said, "Oh, wait! I forgot. I had breast cancer when I was in my thirties. I guess I could qualify to be in this group for that reason, too...".

Everyone smiled. There it was. Proof that it was in fact possible to actually forget you were once a cancer patient... that it could all just fade to the background, along with one's identity as "Cancer Patient" and that yucky feeling of being scared of what's coming around the corner, way too much of the time.

Now, maybe for some people, it's not such a great idea to get that relaxed. Some people need to stay vigilant and pro-active.

But it sure is good to know that time can pass and you can just plain forget that you were once fighting for your life.

I love that story and I'm grateful to the woman who told it, because I've repeated it a lot.

And I'd like to wish anyone who's experienced cancer a very happy Cancer Survivors Day on June 7th!

Take care and be well,

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Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award.