Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website: www.feliciamitchell.net
How can surviving cancer teach us how to endure the discomfort of a common cold and vice versa? Sometimes an ordinary illness can teach us how to vent and exercise self-care beyond self-pity.
Recently while nursing a cold, I spent a lot of time contemplating how I endured cancer and cancer treatment without railing at the universe night and day. A psychologist might say my deference to an illness bigger than life itself was based in a fear of the fates, not just the fact that good cheer is healing. Another might say that the shock of it all silenced me. With a common cold, I wallowed so much in my misery that I came to wonder if I were making up for a lost opportunity to vent.
It all started with what I call the week of feeling pitiful, a week when I not only felt awful from head to toe but also told everybody within listening distance how pitiful I was, including my cat. I complained to the walls. A simple virus felt insurmountable, eliciting more self-pity than a diagnosis of invasive cancer, the complications of a lung collapse after port insertion, chemo and the first days of radiation therapy. I pondered how well I had coped during a serious illness as I blew my nose and shed more tears.
How could I have navigated a cancer journey with more grace than I was handling a common cold? Cancer is, obviously, bigger than a cold. With cancer, I went into crisis mode, which I am good at. My mind does mental triage as I design a coping strategy when something frightening triggers the fight or flight response. I know how to endure the unendurable. Perhaps it is because cancer made me feel strong and capable that this cold, by contrast, made me feel puny.
I wracked my brain to figure out where I might have encountered a simple virus in the same way I probed my genetic history and environmental exposures when I got cancer. Whereas we cannot avoid the genes we are born with, or some environmental toxins, I like to think I have some control over ordinary illnesses in order to give myself the appearance of being robust. Since surviving cancer, I have raised the bar on expectations for good health. I want to glide.
I continued to think about how I survived cancer and its arduous cures as the cold wore on. What other lessons could I take from that success? While I do not use the "battle" metaphor, I accept that I did fight for my life — or at least the quality of my life – with cancer. When faced with something challenging, like radiation therapy, I gave myself time to work out a way to handle it. I know how to fight a cold, too, yet why complain about something that will go away in good time? I complained anyway.
Even as I armed myself with appropriate treatment and faith I would get better within a reasonable time, I languished mentally. I wanted to go to sleep and wake up well. Despite good books to read and work to accomplish via distance technology, I was miserable. I remember being mostly cheerful through cancer treatment. With cancer, I guess, we must be proactive. We need to move from one item on our checklist to the next. Kleenexes are optional.
Finally, at wit's end, I tapped into what I did right with cancer to work through the cold. One way to remain on top of any illness, aside from appropriate treatment, is to seek comfort from friends and family. Soup helps. Self-compassion helps too. With my cold, I did everything my mother would have done to comfort me as I tapped into my inner child. Then, at long last, a morning came when I felt good enough to apply the "look good, feel better" strategy I also learned from my mother during her cancer journey.
Both the cold and cancer taught me something. Using miscellaneous coping strategies from the cancer experience, I endured the cold. I also learned something about my limits. If cancer requires us to be centered and mindful, perhaps a cold can teach us how to vent a bit about the frailty of the human body. I believe it is normal to complain more than I did when I had cancer, because I bottled up a lot of stress then that ultimately erupted over a few days instead of the course of a year. Although I do not hope for another opportunity to vent about cancer, I have realized that venting about a cold is not the worst thing I could do to help my body heal.