Resilience Plays a Huge Role When Fighting Cancer


Learning to live with cancer may take a lifetime, but it is time well spent.

What is it about many cancer survivors that give them the uncanny ability to forge ahead after experiencing seemingly insurmountable pain, defeat, disappointment and illness?

In a word, it’s resilience.

The dictionary defines it this way: “Resilience (noun): A speedy recovery from problems. The ability to recover quickly from setbacks.”

I have never undergone chemotherapy with my breast cancer, so I cannot speak to that. But I have experienced a number of surgeries and hardships, including a double full knee replacement, considered to be one of the most painful procedures with a recovery time that can last a year; a mastectomy; the death of my wife from cancer; and I just passed a kidney stone last night (no kidding). But I’m still here, still fully satisfied with life and still fighting cancer.

And I’m well aware that all of these complaints are “small potatoes” compared with a lot of cancer survivors I know.

But how do we do it? How are we able to regularly diminish the pain of past experience enough to allow ourselves to move ahead and get on with our lives?

A scientific term for this ability is “diffusion,” which simply means the spreading of something more widely. As in pain.

Author Ellen Mcgrath writing in Psychology Today says this about surviving personal trauma:

“The human psyche has a tremendous capacity for recovery, and even growth. Recovering from a traumatic experience requires that the painful emotions be thoroughly processed... They do not improve in isolation. To fix them, you have to be connected to others.”

I was fortunate to be living as a resident in a Zen Center in Hawaii when I was diagnosed with cancer. There were 50 or more regular members that I knew well, and as a consequence, even though my closest friends and family were 2,400 miles away in the mainland, I was surrounded with caring people who supported me in my recovery. Without a doubt, having others on our “team” after a cancer diagnosis is a valuable asset.

But ultimately, it seems there is something in many of us cancer survivors that allows us to push back when discouraged, only to rise up once more in our march toward wellness. I have a stage 4 cancer friend, considered terminal, who is certainly one of the most positive people I’ve ever known. She gets upset whenever words like “brave” or “hero” or “inspirational” are used to describe her. And she’s right of course. She’s just doing what needs to be done to survive. And she’s been pushed back so many times over the last year or two that all who know her are astonished at her resilience.

For most of us, the prognosis is not so dire. But the treatments, the anxiety and the pain may be present. And yet, despite the difficulties we face, we are so often able to make it through the turbulent wall of our cancer hurricane and once again find joy, laughter and optimism.

And resilience is contagious. Perhaps it's the only "bug" we might like to catch, as it can actually support and promote deep healing.

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