Shining a Flashlight on the Cancer Monster

girl hugs teddy bearby Meredith Resnick, LCSW

When I was growing up my father was diagnosed with cancer, a metastatic malignant melanoma that grew as a mass of black on his lower back (imagine a giant portobello mushroom sprouting where it shouldn’t be). 

Back then, in the late 1960s, patients were hospitalized for longer times than they are today, and my father spent long stretches on the third floor of Yonkers General Hospital. His longest stay was three weeks. Shorter stays, for tests done in house, were but a few days. But for a child–me–any amount of time he was gone seemed awful long and a bit dreary. I bet for my mother, it seemed even longer.

“Cancer was a word no one uttered in our family. At least, not in front of me. Still, I knew on some level what was going on.”

Cancer was a word no one uttered in our family. At least, not in front of me. Still, I knew on some level what was going on. The more we didn’t say the word, the bigger the word and all the stories about “the word” I tossed around in my head seemed to get. It was like the giant portobello on my father’s back had turned into a cloud that followed us around. It was as if it had more control over our lives than we did. 

That’s the interesting thing about cancer and what it represents: control. Actually, not control, but power. Cells seemingly dividing and multiplying in an out of control fashion–at whim! As a child, this is what somehow got fixed in my mind, this notion of having little or no power over it–the cancer, my fears, my thoughts about my fears and the cancer. All of it was bound in a tightly knit ball of worry (and I bit my nails to the quick http://meredithresnick.com/pdf/tinylights_tornapart.pdf). 

Even today, I am aware of trying to find a balance between the reality of the disease and the anxious thoughts my mind has attached to the disease–and the word cancer itself. 

My parents did an amazing job of trying to keep my life moving forward while they dealt with my dad’s illness (by the way, he was 50 when he was diagnosed, and lived into his 70s). Still, it was difficult for them. My mother was very frightened and, by proxy, so was I. From having worked with people on a clinical basis who are in varying stages of managing illness, I have come to learn some valuable ideas that I want to share:

We are human and fear is natural. As a parent, when a child is fearful, ask them to explain what they are afraid of. Then–I have heard this technique referred to as that of “shining a flashlight on the monsters under the bed”–suggest that together you examine what is making them afraid. This is something many parents do naturally anyhow, and should feel free to apply it to issues around disease as well. By shining the (flash)light, we move into power and show children how do this. By staying in the dark, the mind continues to tell scary stories, (which is what it’s really good at). 

Stay “where your feet are.” This is so much easier than trying to “think positive,” which often ends up being a chore and something that adds stress, especially during an emotionally charged time/situation. Don’t get me wrong–there is nothing bad about being positive and upbeat. But the power comes in focusing on the next indicated step. I admit, this takes practice (I should know–it is something I must to practice daily!). 

Practice ways to connect with your deepest, truest self, the part of you that is unshakable, unstoppable, real. Meditation is wonderful because, again, it is geared to help us gain control (for lack of a better word) over the mind. 

Eckhart Tolle, the spiritual teacher, explains clearly and succinctly in The Power of Now and A New Earth, that peace and serenity is found in the present moment. So if anxiety returns, the antidote is to gently gently invite back the present moment. The key is to do it gently – as you would take the hand of child.

Meredith ResnickMeredith Resnick, LCSW, worked as a clinical social worker in geriatrics, psychiatry and home health/hospice for more than two decades. Her personal essays have appeared in Newsweek, Bride’s, JAMA, The Orange County Register, Los Angeles Times and many others. She writes about all things “Sandwich Generation” for Psychology Today–Visit: More Than Caregiving: The Real Truth About Life With Aging Parents. For more, visit: MeredithResnick.com.

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