Juggling complex emotions in my cancer journey

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juggling_complex_emotions_in_my_lymphoma_cancer_journey.JPGBy Andrew Griffith

Andrew Griffith has mantle cell lymphoma and has had both an autologous (from his own cells) and an allogeneic (from a donor) stem cell transplant in November 2009 and August 2011, respectively. He lives in Canada and is married with two young adult children. He blogs at, has published "Living with Cancer: A Journey," and can be followed on Twitter @lymphomajourney.

We are often pulled in different, opposing directions, and take time to find the balance between acceptance and anger, surrender and control, individual and group, being and thinking, living and dying. How we find balance and what that balance is influences our attitude.

Yesterday I talked about two of the conflicts I came back to most often during my cancer journey - acceptance / anger and individual / group. Here are three more conflicts that I've struggled with.

Surrender / control
My cancer experience has pushed me to find a balance between surrender and control. While much of the cancer literature uses words like 'fight,' 'combat' and 'cure,' I found myself more inclined to surrender to the fact that I was no longer in control.

I had to rely on my medical team for advice and direction. I had to rely on family and friends for practical and especially emotional support. I also had to rely on my colleagues and workplace for support during my absence. I'm used to being in control, so having my life in the hands of others shifted my perspective and taught me to appreciate other people.

Interdependence and the trust in others that it entails became vital to how I saw my relationships with family, friends, colleagues and my medical team.

While I needed to surrender, I also needed to figure out where I could and should exercise control. Surrender was the big picture, but the devil was in the details. I found control on several levels.

First, I worked with my medical team and made an effort to be on top of my file.

Post-relapse, I became even more involved. I provided more feedback when things were not moving quickly enough, made stronger and more pointed suggestions regarding treatment options and insisted on getting a second opinion.

On the emotional and psychological levels, having some control meant using the time available to me during the treatment -- and between treatments -- to achieve something.

This included walks with my wife, which allowed me to connect with her and enjoy the comfort of physical movement, nature and being outdoors. I also made time to remain connected to my kids.

I also came up with a reading list, based on my own interests and friends' suggestions, to keep me intellectually engaged and alive.

Travel, both during my remission (family holiday to Australia, Paris getaway with my wife) and between the 'salvage' chemo and my stem cell transplant (another Paris getaway with my wife), was also important for experiencing life and creating memories.

Writing also has been a way for me to make sense of it all. During my initial treatment, I kept a daily journal, in which I kept track of what I was going through, emotionally and physically. I also sent weekly updates to staff and colleagues, which then turned into my blog.

During the initial phase of my relapse treatment, I focused more on the blog, developing it further by sharing health-related articles that resonated with me.

The mechanics of the 'salvage' chemo and the largely repetitive nature of the side-effects were less interesting, and the emotional and treatment option discussions were best captured in the blog.

And similarly, I captured the ups and downs (mainly ups -- I was lucky) of my allo stem cell transplant and recovery period. This allowed for more in-depth commentary on books that particularly interested me.

Being / thinking
Partially influenced by Eckhart Tolle, I was struck by the difference between simple awareness and thinking and analyzing. I am naturally analytical, which has served me well professionally but has caused me to struggle emotionally and psychologically.

Being required to reflect on something like my mortality, which in many ways defies analysis, was beneficial and helped me come to greater awareness.

In many cases, 'being' was as simple as going for walks and trying to be more observant of and attentive to natural beauty, whether the flowers, trees, birdsong, the way the light played with the leaves or the spectacularly vibrant fall colors.

This ensured that I was truly there when talking with my family. The Blackberry was off, and that felt good when. When I was particularly weak, I found comfort in classical music and just letting the music wash over and through me.

My Paris getaway with my wife between treatments gave both of us a much-needed break from the rock and a hard place options before me (and before us). I did not meditate, but made a more conscious effort to find moments when I could simply be, rather than analyze.

I also found outlets for my analytical tendencies. Staying on top of my medical file, reading, and writing this blog and my daily journal all helped me analyze what I was going through and helped me feel more in control.

Living / dying
The ultimate conflict.

While balancing the other contrasts in my cancer journey came early and easily to me, it was only later on, well after the immediate danger zone of my allostem cell transplant, that I realized that I had missed the obvious distinction between living and dying.

Perhaps it was already embedded in the decisions I took, my wish to be as active as possible and my 'this too shall pass' attitude when times were rough.

I think that, for most of us who have cancer or face death for other reasons, the possibility of dying makes us more appreciative of the present moment. We don't take time for granted, and shift our focus from the uncertain long-term to the short-term when we can actually do things.

Related story
Balancing acceptance and anger in my cancer journey

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