Cancer Survivor Decides to Grow Her Resilience


Breast cancer and melanoma survivor works on resilience to cope with her two cancers.

Cancer took me down. It was unexpected and I was unprepared. Can anyone really be prepared to hear the words, “You have cancer”?

Looking back after more than six years of survivorship, including breast cancer and then an unrelated melanoma, I think these experiences helped me to use some techniques to grow my resilience. Cancer can’t take away my resilience. I will fight cancer with my resilience.

I once asked a special needs teacher about kids who come from troubled families. I asked her why some kids from tough backgrounds or challenging family situations make it while others don't. Her response: resilience. She felt some kids simply had more natural resilience than others had and could therefore better overcome life's negative events and move on.

Resilience is defined in my old Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as, "the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused by compressive stress" or "an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change." Resilience sounds like a quality we would all want, especially cancer survivors. These definitions remind me of a foam rubber ball. After cancer dented me, I want to be more like a foam rubber ball that bounces back and recovers its shape. Well, I want to try, anyway.

I have vowed to try to be more resilient. I found myself wondering if that would even be possible, and if resilience is a natural ability or an innate quality. I believe in people. I think we all actively cultivate qualities we want to see in ourselves. After all, we choose new behaviors like weight loss, healthy eating, exercise and frugality, or we make relationship, career or other life changes, and we try to pursue a host of other good qualities like calmness, patience or persistence. Why not greater resilience?

First, I am going to work to make countless choices to be resilient when life kicks up the usual problems. I am a huge believer in the power of choice. I believe that we, as people, have the power to choose. Stay aware: I think every one of us can make better choices on a daily basis. Every day, life gives us many opportunities to make choices.

Second, I am going to surround myself with things that help me be resilient. Prayer helps. Meditation redirects my mind. Nature can be calming, and it does a great job of redirecting my focus when I am upset. I sometimes simply take an outdoor walk or look out the window to help me regain perspective. Owning a dog also helps me to be resilient. Coming home to unconditional puppy love every day absolutely improves my resiliency.

When my cancer fears and worries are stirred up, it also helps to have something in my hands, like crocheting, to calm myself and redirect my focus. Figure out what environment or people or pets or activities or things help you to be more resilient and surround yourself with them. You know what things soothe you. Focus on them during active cancer treatment and beyond.

Third, I am going to work on my attitude. If I can't change events, I can still change how I perceive them and how I choose to react to them. Is the glass half empty or half full? When the garage door spring breaks in the middle of winter, am I going to panic or problem solve? Am I going to be grateful for what's going right in my life or am I going to dwell on the stuff that upsets me?

Finally, I am going to learn to get comfortable with living with life’s paradoxes. Some things both scare me and challenge me — such as the opportunity to give a presentation in front of a very large audience. Some things make me feel happy and sad — for instance, watching my children leave home and start their own lives. The better I get at accepting paradoxes rather than resisting them, the easier it is for me to start making lemonade rather than staring sadly at the lemons!

What would happen if we all worked to be more resilient? I think it would be amazing. Instead of banging into life events like cancer and coming away shattered, cracked, bent or broken, we would bounce away like a foam rubber ball and come back whole and ready for the next adventure!

Are you ready to work on your resilience? How has your resilience helped you cope with your cancer?

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