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Moving On After Cancer

There are many ways that survivors are encouraged, prodded and cajoled toward the idea that in order to fully recover from cancer we need leave the role of cancer patient behind.
Thirty-plus years into the practice of psychotherapy, I’ve learned that telling someone that their recovery depends on “moving on” is akin to telling a depressed person to just “be happy.” My approach these days is to talk about living with rather than living without, allowing over forcing and, most importantly, realizing that life moves on in wellness and illness, joy and suffering, pleasure and pain. I firmly believe that illness does not halt this process; it does not put the brakes on existence. Feeling stuck comes from a trick of the mind that sees suffering, of any kind, as an unnecessary detour and waste of time.

Once we allow our lives to unfold with cancer as part of our experience, we awaken to the literal meaning of the word survive which is “to live beyond.” This is the wisdom of being told that we become survivors on the day we receive our diagnosis. Thus, the need to discover the way ahead, to put psychological, emotional and spiritual distance between ourselves and the illness is already being met. Therefore, the work is often a matter of staying out of our own way as we move through this process.

That I momentarily lost my understanding that we can to live our down times with as much vigor, interest and compassion as our up times is no longer a surprise. Upon reflection, I understand that I was trying to help my client, not support her. I wanted to clear the road rather than walk it with her. I saw the hurdle of anxiety and wanted to knock it down — all of this despite my Zen understanding that the obstacle is the path.

I made a commitment to myself that I will not be caught off guard again. I’ve developed my, ever at the ready, response for the next time I’m asked some version of “How do you move on?” The answer is in three parts, and in true psychotherapist fashion in the form of questions.
  1. Where do you want to go?
  2. How will you know it when you get there?
  3. How can I help you along the way?

Talk about this article with other patients, caregivers, and advocates in the General Discussions CURE discussion group.
Mike Verano is a licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist and thymic cancer survivor with over 30 years experience in the mental health field. Mike has had articles published in national and international magazines and is the author of The Zen of Cancer: A Mindful Journey From Illness to Wellness. In addition, he maintains the blog, Confessions of a Pacifist in the War on Cancer. He and his wife, Kathy, live in Lanexa, Virginia.
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