Reframing the Cancer Experience

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I actively encourage all my clients experiencing life-altering stressors to trick the mind using the art of reframing.

The crushing blow of a cancer diagnosis can bring about dramatic changes in one’s view of both the external and internal worlds. In an attempt to bring order to the chaotic shifts taking place, the mind will often take necessary liberties with the truth. In psychotherapeutic terms, these reality makeovers are called reframes. They are a very powerful tools that not only help turn lemons into lemonade, but also help to reorient one toward a path of recovery and wellness.

The mother of all reframes in the cancer world is the “Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me” mantra. This clearly takes the bitter pill of a potential life-ending ailment and places it gingerly in the sweeter, more digestible, category of life-altering. The reasons that reframing works so well are: a) there is a degree of truth in the statements and b) rather than being a fixed element, reality is what each one of us decides it will be.

An old Zen story points to the notion of reality being in the mind of the beholder. Here is a reworked version from the vantage point of a cancer diagnosis:

A worried patient seeks the counsel of a wise Zen master and complains, “An awful thing has happened. I’ve been diagnosed with cancer. What have I done to deserve such a fate?” The Zen master replies, “It’s hard to say what it good or what is bad.” The next week, the patient returns and exclaims, “A wonderful thing has happened! Since being diagnosed with cancer I no longer worry about simple things. Isn’t that great!” Once again the Zen master replies, “It’s hard to say what is good and what is bad.” The next week, a despondent patient sits at the feet of the master and laments, “Such horrible news — I’ve been so focused on my treatment I forgot to pay my mortgage, I risk losing my home. When will these tragedies end?” The Zen master smiles and replies, “It hard to say what is good and what is bad.”

Obviously, the story could go on indefinitely with each new triumph and tragedy being met with the same response. The existential unpinning of the vignette is that the world is made up of opposites that, in truth, do not oppose, but support each other. It is not a matter of this or that, but this and that. Therefore, if we choose, cancer is both the worst and best thing to happen to us.

Since the rotation of the world's opposites leave many feeling dizzy, seeking refuge at the still focal point is a reasonable antidote to motion sickness. The time-honored trick of “fix your gaze on the horizon” is appropriate as one looks beyond chemo and radiation therapies, blood tests and dying cells to the distant day when life is no longer being tossed by the tidal waves of emotions.

A great teacher once exclaimed, “The mind is a cheat, seek refuge in the heart.” My psychotherapeutic pronouncement of this truth is, “Your mind has no second thoughts about playing tricks on you; feel free to play back.” There is no rule that says we have to take on the thorns of the world if we are feeling depleted, distressed and depressed. I actively encourage all my clients experiencing life-altering stressors to trick the mind using the art of reframing.

The energy that is freed up by choosing a less stressful “truth” can be directed toward seeking refuge in the heart. It is there that we realize that cancer is only one of countless experiences that shape our existence. Within this inner-knowing, the question, “Is it good or bad?” is moot. We don’t even need to be, or visit, a Zen master to open this sanctuary — our cancer has provided the access.