Friday, April 24, 2009

The Power of Positive Thinking

Verna did something she rarely does last night: she went out alone. OK, she only traveled about 100 ft., but, hey, it was progress. She joined a few of our female neighbors for a couple of hours of ping-pong. After I put Miguel to bed, I was content to plop on the couch and read my thriller (which turned out to be more or less a dud) as she stoked her competitive fires with a Girls Night Out.

One of the women recently took a pap test and it came back questionable. Her mom died prematurely from cancer a few years ago, so she freaked out at the doctor’s office when she went in for a follow-up. She left without finishing the test.

“She’s probably suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome,” Verna said as we lounged in the living room after she got home.

Another woman, who is a former neighbor, took the quasi-fatalist approach when talking about cancer and recurrence. She said, “People do die. We could get hit by a car at anytime.”

Verna laughed and responded to her, “Yeah, but the car has my name on it.”

Living with cancer and recovery means heightened stress for the rest of one’s life no matter what one's status. The sword never really stops dangling from above unless it is too late.

Verna said to me, “I wish I could go back to just feeling I might get hit by a car. Then you don’t worry about it.” She paused. “Do you ever think about it?”

I did admit that, since I’ve become a father and since she was diagnosed with cancer (and her life expectancy dropped dramatically after we found out it was Stage III), my death anxiety levels are higher than normal. But, no, I told her, I rarely ponder my demise.

Our former neighbor’s attitude is really a variation, I think, of the if-you-only-think-positive-you-can-beat-cancer notion that some people spewed at us when Verna was sick. Frankly, we found it insulting, especially since we lost a dear, dear friend to breast cancer. And if we accept the power of positive thinking model, does that mean our friend didn’t pray, hope, fight hard enough?


Yes, we could all die and eventually we will all die. But Verna’s point is she is now a marked person, and that is something that only cancer survivors and other related sufferers can truly understand. It changes how one physically and emotionally interacts with the world on a daily basis.

It’s frustrating sometimes that people push intentionally or not their own mental-health-karmic-cosmological agendas without truly walking in the shoes of the ‘patient’. Easy for me to spout right now because I, too, have not slipped on Verna’s footwear. But I have witnessed up close and personal her suffering and anguish, so I guess that gives me some kind of right to express these opinions.

None of this is to say that Verna is waiting for the Angel of Death to tap on the door and whisk her away. Hardly. She is enjoying life with family and friends. She is rather upbeat and extremely healthy. But her emotions and hormones constantly wreak havoc on her body and mind because of the gnawing fear that the cancer will (and the odds are highly likely) return.

Sometimes I think all she needs is a little acknowledgement and understanding. Sometimes those are my strong suits. Other times, I am an abject failure. For the record, however, Verna played three games of ping-pong and lost only once, to someone she has yet to beat.

She hasn’t given up hope of winning, but she is realistic. Time will tell.

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