On Aging and Cancer, Part 1

January 8, 2019

I often joke in training classes on aging that with every new candle on my birthday cake, a new medicine bottle shows up in my cabinet.

As a psychotherapist, cancer survivor and card-carrying member of AARP, I often find myself meeting with clients with whom I share the common concern of what happens when the aging process is complicated by a life-altering illness. While most people accept the inevitable aches and pains associated with growing older, adjusting to the impact of something like cancer can often lead to the sense that aging itself is a disease. I often joke in training classes on aging that with every new candle on my birthday cake, a new medicine bottle shows up in my cabinet.

Like many people my age, the first item packed for any extended vacation is not the swimming trunks and suntan lotion, but the items from my in-home apothecary. The myriad of lotions, tonics, remedies, capsules etc. are constant reminders of the wisdom that aging is not for the weak of heart (and if you have a weak heart there is a medication for that too).

Coping with the physical challenges left by cancer treatment has a profound psychological impact that can strain the limits of one's psyche. Depression and/or anxiety are common responses. The (often literal) battle scars from surgeries are no longer seen as badges of honor and a life well-lived, but cruel reminders of organs no longer there, alterations of the natural order of things and the replacement of organic parts with modern-age mechanics.

For those of us who have faced the challenge of cancer, the age-old issue of quality or quantity is not some philosophical luxury but, very often, an actual accounting of pros and cons. Like many of the cancer survivors I have spoken with, I was both surprised and disappointed by how quickly my sense of being happy to still be alive was replaced with the moans and groans of new ailments.

It's been challenging to watch as the survivor's smile has been replaced with the nervous "what's next?" twitch. Confronted with the dual threat of "normal aging" and serious illness, the mantra, "you're only as old as you feel" falls on slowly deafening ears. Likewise, the sagely advice to stop lamenting what one has lost and be grateful for what one still has is about as useful as counting sheep to bring on sleep. This is not to say that in my personal and professional life I espouse cynicism and pessimism. I know enough about neuropsychology and physiology to understand that a negative mind frame only tenses the body thus limiting blood flow and increasing the experience of chronic pain. These days, I find pragmatism — thinking of, or dealing with, problems in a practical way, rather than by using theory or abstract principles – as the most useful approach to growing old after cancer.


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