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How do we deal with cancer?

written by

Leukaemia Care, Charity

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It’s easy to cope with lions: you run. We all know that; millions of years of evolution on the plains of Africa has wired that firmly into our brains. Lions are a threat, and the best way of dealing with one is to run or to hit it hard with a big stick (but preferably, to run).

As far as our brains are concerned, cancer is a threat much like a lion: it sneaks up on you, pounces and tries to kill you. But cancer is an entirely different animal. You can’t run from it, and you cannot hit it over the head with a big stick, because it’s inside you. The threat is under your skin, and it’s already taken a bite. All those survival instincts that kept us alive for those millions of years, suddenly have no answer to that. So at first you kind of sit there, frozen in panic, while your brain screams at you to DO SOMETHING NOW.

You know where you are with lions, but cancer feels like a total unknown. What am I dealing with? Will it kill me? How can I get it before it gets me? How badly will it hurt? How will my family cope? Will it ever come back? You can’t know for sure. Cancer is a complicated beast. It can change everything. Your usual coping strategies suddenly may not work.

Our brain is very good at thinking ahead: planning and preparing for all possibilities. It’s what has always kept us one step ahead of the lions. But the price we pay for this is that we can also imagine the many different ways in which cancer may harm us, and are overwhelmed by a thousand fears.

Psychology is the science of human behaviour. Clinical psychologists specialise in how people’s behaviour can help or hinder them living their lives.

In cancer services, clinical psychologists help patients and their families (and cancer professionals) understand how they cope with cancer, and find better coping strategies. It involves planning, problem solving, endurance, tactical withdrawal and focused attack. You may need to draw on new resources and find new sources of support. You may need a calm place to process and think, make decisions and plan your moves. You may need a safe space where you can voice your fears, soothe your pain, recover and hold onto hope. You may need help coping with cancer while looking after your family and keeping your life going.

Cancer psychologists can help with all that. Because the trick in coping with cancer is not so much knowing that beast, as it is knowing yourself. Our brain is a creature of habit, but can also be incredibly resourceful and flexible if it puts its mind to it.

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