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Superstitious Behavior in the Face of Cancer

Sometimes you can find comfort and a little bit of relief in an irrational (and a bit silly) behavior.
PUBLISHED November 01, 2016
Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
What is a superstition? For me, it’s believing that something I can do, say, wear, etc. will have an influence on something completely unrelated. Baseball fans might say it is wearing the exact same clothes during World Series games or making sure the salsa that was put in bowls during the win of game 1 is the same salsa placed in the same bowls during game 2. A little nuts, right?

I have a confession to make.

I do the same thing with my cancer treatment. 

I had my first chemotherapy treatment in January of 2015 and the same treatments continued every week through July of 2015, then changed to once every three weeks through the foreseeable future (knock on wood…) and also involve scans every three months and various other tests.

And for every single one of these visits to the hospital and to see the oncologist when she would be giving me scan results, I have worn colorful striped socks from Esprit and lime green undergarments.

That sartorial consistency is not a coincidence. Why would I change what I have worn when the news has been as good as it can be? Maybe my underwear is responsible? 

The one time when I could only find bright pink undergarments, I told myself that it was OK because it was similar enough — bright, colorful — to the lime green to go unnoticed by whatever evil force might decide against me based on my failure to wash those lime green items.

Silly? Yes. I know it when I am getting dressed on those mornings and I know it as I am writing this. But will I stop? No. 

Although believing in superstitions can have negative effects — you don’t try as hard to win a soccer game because you couldn’t find your lucky socks, for example — it provides an odd and satisfying bit of comfort in the stressful situations faced by cancer patients. Mind tricks like my insistence on wearing the same things is understandable; we want to have an effect on an uncontrollable situation.

And it’s no secret that cancer patients crave control in the face of this disease. We want to know what is being done, what will be done, what will it do and how might it affect us. Most importantly, we want to know what we, the patients, can do to affect the success of our treatments. So much is seemingly random: I respond well to drug X, but the patient across the room sees no effect even though our cancers appear to be similar.

I’m not advocating treatment based on sock choices. It is just that sometimes our brains need a rest from fighting to find ways to control the cancer anxiety. Rationally, I know that my striped socks are not going to influence how my body responds to anything; I know that CT scanner is going to find what it finds regardless of what I have on underneath the gown. But that irrational part of my brain finds a way to let go of a little piece of the fear when I follow a ritual that has “worked” in the past.

I know some things seem to actually have an effect on how I live — exercise, a good diet, friends — but on those most stressful of days, I want the illusion of control, even knowing it is just an illusion. So I’ve got my superstitions. With the iPod playing the same set of songs as the drugs drip through the IV, the same striped socks bending to the beat, and my lime green undergarments remaining hidden, I can relax enough to know that I can handle this, and whatever else is coming my way.
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