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What We Tell Ourselves About Our Cancer Matters


Every survivor has a story about our disease, and what we choose to believe can change everything.

That voice. We hear it with every idea that percolates through our brains. We hear it with every decision that we make each day. We hear it when we've done well, and when we've failed miserably. It's the endless dialogue that plays in our heads, through our thoughts and within our incessant analytic contemplations.

It's been called the "still small voice" or the voice of one's conscience. It's been called our subconscious. The word "subconscious" is derived from the French "subconscient" as coined by the psychologist Pierre Janet (1859-1947), who argued that underneath the layers of critical-thought functions of the conscious mind lay a powerful awareness, called the subconscious mind.

And then there is the powerful voice of ego which has the capacity to both demean and uplift us. That's the role of ego, after all. Eckhart Tolle, a contemporary spiritual philosopher and author describes it like this: "The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and education, physical appearance, special abilities, relationships, person and family history, belief systems, and often nationalistic, racial, religious, and other collective identifications. None of these is you."

That simple observation is the key to recognizing the negative thoughts that we can create while living with a cancer diagnosis. Indeed, we are not our thoughts or beliefs. We are not our fears or doubts. And we certainly aren't our biases, our opinions or our judgements. But the line between what is real and what is manifested through our thinking is nebulous. Negative thinking about our cancer often reflects the past or the future. In the Zen tradition, only "now" is our true experience.

As cancer survivors, we are often connected to past memories of trauma, pain and disappointments. We are also drawn to the future, which for all of us is packed with uncertainty. Our past is far removed; even those thoughts we had a few seconds ago. And our future, with all of the concerns and worries that accompany cancer, is a mirage. We can't possibly know our future until we arrive. And yet the inner voice we all have seems to dictate our condition, based on past experience and future assumptions.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. writes in Psychology Today and makes the point that our inner dialogue plays a vital role in regulating how we think and behave. It allows us to "rehearse" different scenarios and enables us to avoid rash actions. But it can also create unnecessary fear and anxiety and lead us astray.

Perhaps the greatest gift I've received as a cancer survivor has been through daily meditation (in my case the practice of Zen). It has given me the opportunity to pull away from the stress of before and after cancer thoughts, and participate in my cancer survival right now, this very minute.

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, writes: "The critical inner voice reveals itself in those little everyday thoughts that flit through our consciousness. They zing us and are gone before we are even fully aware of them. These thoughts are part of a menacing internal dialogue, a harsh and judgmental way that we talk to ourselves. Once you have become aware of its negative guidance, you can make a conscious effort to not act on its destructive advice."

For most of us, we can never totally eradicate the voice of failure from within us. It will always be there, pushing us to think and feel and act in a way that is contrary to our own best interests. But we can effectively silence this destructive influence by developing a sound philosophy and a positive attitude about life and our future. When we have the extra burden of surviving cancer on our shoulders, the words we tell ourselves are of vital importance. In fact, our very lives may depend on them.

We are all experiencing different stages and effects of our cancer on any given day. Today I may or may not be cancer free. But at this moment, I am symptom free. And when you get right down to it, that's all I need to know because, despite what my chatty brain is or isn't telling me, that's all I can know.

"There have been many people for whom limitations, failure, loss, or pain in whatever form turned out to be their greatest teacher. It taught them to let go of false self-images and superficial ego-dictated goals and desires. It gave them depth, humility and compassion. It made them more real." - Eckhart Tolle


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