Inner Peace During the War on Cancer or Ten Habits of Highly Effective Cancer Patients (with apologies to Stephen Covey)

We have often used military metaphors such as fight or battle to describe an individual’s struggle against cancer. It is ironic that one of the first figures to go public with his battle was General Hiram Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), our 18th President. In 1971 our 37th President, Richard Milhous Nixon, declared War on Cancer, which we are slowly winning with 10.5 million survivors such as yourselves to prove the point!

Recently there was an interesting editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) entitled “Waging Peace in the War on Cancer” by Dr. Thomas Edes, which generated the idea for this presentation.

It is always important to fight the good fight, but how you wage that fight depends on what is really important in your life. We have plenty of powerful weapons in the War on Cancer. We have more targeted chemotherapies in place and in the pipeline, modulated radiations that spare healthy tissue, effective hormonal treatments, and immunological vaccines on the horizon. But we should never forget a most powerful tool that money cannot buy, but all of us can possess: Inner Peace.

There is no doubt that cancer is a formidable enemy, but we must not give it more power than it absolutely has to have. As traumatic as cancer may be, it can create enough discomfort to re-evaluate priorities and help us make positive changes. Below are ten habits to help cultivate Inner Peace.

The first habit to create inner peace is to make a point to start and end each day with a positive thought. Someone remarked about Tim Russert, the former head of NBC television’s Washington News Bureau that he awoke every morning feeling as though he had won the Lottery. Getting picked for the Cancer Lottery is not something you asked for, but you can still be glad to get up in the morning. There is a big difference between “Good God, it’s morning than “Good morning God”.

The second habit is to develop a daily practice of getting quiet enough to feel what calmness really feels like. Start with just two minutes if that is all you can. You can always increase that.

The third habit is to make a point to try to say a hundred blessings a day to notice all the beauty and small miracles that surround us. You can begin with an appreciation for what still works in our body. Seeing the sunrise or set. Feel the touch of a family member. Savor a drink of water.

The fourth habit is to create the best individual healing path, which includes exploring all avenues that can generate growth, peace, and harmony among body, mind, and spirit.

The fifth habit is to be proactive and informed so you can pick your treatment team and participate actively in decisions that impact you.

The sixth habit is be willing to explore and accept our thoughts and feelings so we can change them or be more at peace with them. We have the ability (although it needs to be cultivated) to refocus our attention on what really makes our life matter.

The seventh habit is to stay in the moment rather than worry about the future or hold regrets about the past. This opens us up to a fuller experience of what is happening as we pass through life.

The eighth habit is to stay focused on what we still have rather than what we have lost and experience joy. To paraphrase a Yiddish proverb, “If you break a leg, be thankful you didn’t break two. If you break two legs, be thankful you didn’t break your neck. If you break your neck, be thankful you can still lie in bed.”

The ninth habit is to experience the wonder of a spiritual connection. It may be difficult during this time to understand “WHY?”, but an overriding sense that there is some purpose rather than randomness is essential to inner peace.

The tenth habit is to focus on what is meaningful and makes you feel productive. This gives us something to look forward to and we all need that when we get out of bed in the morning. Keep doing the things you love as long as you possibly can. Surround yourself with the people who matter most and help you feel supported.

There are many extraordinary cancer survivors. But, you don’t have to be a Lance Armstrong who won seven torturous Tour de Frances after metastatic testicular cancer. You don’t have to be a Shawn Swarner who climbed Mt. Everest and six other continental heights after two bouts with totally different primary cancers. You don’t have to be Lance Mackey, a two-time winner of the Iditarod, the grueling dog sled Alaska competition, after throat cancer. You don’t have to be a Barbara Hillary. This 75-year-old Lung Cancer Survivor, who grew up in Harlem, learned to ski and made it to the North Pole. You don’t have to be a Frank Cody, a 67-year-old Kalamazoo man, who after a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer in 2003, went on to achieve one of his childhood dreams by winning two medals at the 12th Master’s World Swimming Championships in Perth, Australia.

And you certainly may not have the guts to perform a biopsy and administer chemotherapy to yourself even if you were not at the South Pole like Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who discovered her own breast cancer while on expedition there. But to have Inner Peace you do need to be in harmony with your true self. To be at peace with yourself means you are headed “True North”, that is living your life as best you can from moment to moment.

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