Defining Your Stance on Cancer: Does What You Believe Matter?


A male breast cancer survivor ponders the power of attitude.

The words we speak about our cancer have impact on our lives.

But what about our thoughts?

I began to wonder about the power of my beliefs with regard to my own cancer after a family member pointed out how restricted I have become due to arthritis in my knees, now that I am 67 years old.

I think they used the term “incapacitated” half-jokingly of course. And that’s what caught my attention. It was the other half of that statement the got me thinking about this.

Forty years of competitive running has no doubt contributed to the knee arthritis I experience today, and I do feel “slowed down” for sure. But incapacitated?

The other day I was determined to join a group of off-road bicycle riders on an afternoon exploration of the Arizona trail when the aforementioned, well-intentioned family member questioned my sanity.

“You can’t walk!” I was reminded.

“I won’t be walking,” I countered. “I’ll be peddling”.

The conversation escalated until my sparring partner blurted out, “You’re crippled. You’re a crippled old man!”

I didn’t believe those words. More importantly, I didn’t believe in those words. The distinction is subtle, but important I think.

I know of course that I am limited by my bad knees, just as I know that breast cancer has left me with numbness and discomfort in the area of my mastectomy surgery. But I also have a very clear memory of me as a runner for 40 years. I have a clear memory of the hundreds of races and many thousands of miles I traversed. I actually calculated that in my four decades of running almost daily, I circumnavigated the Earth (about 29,000 miles) and was on my second revolution when injury took me “out of the running,” so to speak.

I may not be racing today, but I will always be a runner.

I may have cancer in my life now, but I will always be a formerly healthy and cancer-free man.

And this is the way I have chosen to see myself, with the focus on that part of me that ran marathons and the person that was free of cancer for 64 years.

You may think I’m quibbling over nothing here. And perhaps it’s true, but the way I see it, I can choose to think of myself as a “crippled old man” or as a “former marathon runner.” I can see myself as a “guy with cancer” or as a “previously healthy guy in every respect who, for now at any rate, has cancer in his life.”

Again, the difference is subtle, but I believe that our bodies respond to our thoughts. Certainly, our stress levels are affected by the stories we accept about ourselves.

I have to wonder if all of this is just my foolish denial or is this the only way to see my life fully and meaningfully without giving in to negativity.

I do not accept that cancer will make those choices in my life about who I am and what I’m capable of. No matter how difficult our cancer may be, surely our memory of who we’ve been and can be again is more important than the dismay over who we are now.

“Former marathoner with knee issues, or crippled old man?”

In cancer as in life, words matter. But thoughts matter more.

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