Clarification on Earlier Post about Stress & Cancer

I post on a number of blog sites, and I recently posted—on all the sites I use—Art Therapy and Mindfulness Training Lower Stress in Breast Cancer Patients. Basically I posted a link to the article on HuffPost, along with the comments I left on HuffPost’s comment section. I’ve experienced some strange reactions, which I might discuss in a later post. I may have gone off on the article “half-cocked”, but I still stand by my comments.

I am not against lowering stress, using meditation, art, yoga, or anything anyone wants to do/indulge in, to feel better, cancer patient or not. I do some of these things and more, which works for me. But I must express what bothers me about the article and its presentation, (not the methods or the idea of de-stressing). Here are the first few words of the article: “Stress is especially dangerous for those with cancer — it’s even been tied to lower survival rates…”

I don’t doubt that this is true…hasn’t it been said for years that less stress is better for your heart, your immune system, your…everything? So less stress should also be beneficial to cancer patients….and some articles even note all the reasons we are stressed. Well, duh-huh. It’s like this report my friend told me about, which pointed out that women who want children and experience failed IFV attempts are often more depressed/stressed and consequently more likely to become ill and/or die than women who successfully had children. Captain Obvious strikes again. Who the hell awards grant money for this stupidity?

To get to the cancer-n-stress report I am babbling about, you have to click a few times to get to a page written in medical-ese, which is a little challenging for non-medical professionals to understand, and the casual reader is not going to jump through these hoops. They will only see the sound bites. And that is why I am worried. Those words—stress as dangerous to those with cancer—good grief. Guess what is really dangerous? Cancer!! Know what makes cancer patients stressed? Cancer! Know why cancer is so stressful? It kills!! How about I point a loaded gun, safety off, at your head and tell you to not be stressed?

My point is that it is natural to be stressed in a stressful situation, and in the beginning I felt an unreasonable pressure to be a “good cancer patient” as a result of interactions with people I know and exposure to various news articles constantly lecturing why stress is bad and how to get rid of it as if it were unnatural, and that all of human society must collectively strive to obliterate, not just alleviate it. I used to watch that show Charmed, about three good witches charged with protecting innocents with their magical powers. In one episode they upset some cosmic balance and every one had to be happy all of the time, and the merest hint of an expression of a slightly negative emotion could get a person arrested/killed…except the characters could not talk about death, because everyone was acting like it did not exist.

Sometimes I felt like that television episode in Cancer Land, especially the cancer swathed in the cheery pink ribbons. When assaulted with this don’t worry be happy attitude, I felt as though my legitimate emotions were being dismissed—that  I was being dismissed for not getting on the rah rah train. I no longer feel this pressure, because mainly it was self imposed because I thought I needed to fulfill everyone else’s expectations. Now I feel: fuck your expectations! I am ALLOWED to feel the bad along with the good, and so are you. I know I am not the only one who just gets more stressed when told not to be stressed. For a much better expression of this concept (because I think I am starting to suck here), please check out The Human Side of Cancer, Jimmie C. Holland, M.D., chapter 2, The Tyranny of Positive Thinking.

But worst of all, those words, stress is dangerous to cancer patients, once again suggest the notion that anyone can exert control over cancer, or life, even. One of the worst interactions non-cancer patients have with cancer patients is when “they” start asking those slightly accusatory questions…did you smoke to the lung cancer patient…did you get a pap smear to the ovarian cancer patient (which does not detect ovarian cancer, but that question was asked of my friend nonetheless)….did you drink too much in your youth/do you exercise/what is your diet like/are you stressed—to any type of cancer patient. Those without cancer wish to almost blame us, to put “us” on the other side of an imaginary line so “they” can remain safe, and therefore unlikely to get cancer. I know, I was once a “they” or an “I”. “I” thought quietly to myself, “I” do or don’t do xyz, “I” am safe, “I” won’t get cancer. WRONG! I’m sure everyone can think of that one anecdotal situation of someone so healthy, running miles every day, happy as I don’t know what, etc, and the person still got cancer. It happens, we are powerless, and the randomness and meaningless is still a struggle for me, as is the lack of control, but that is a whole other post!

The cause of cancer is unknown, which is why people still get it. And it’s nice some medical research is advocating for recognizing the health benefits of less stress—hell if it results in medical insurance coverage of yoga classes or whatever, wonderful. But what would really relieve my stress is the knowledge there will be better, easier-to-take treatments, should my cancer return. Less nausea = less stress. Less burnt skin = less stress. No more disfiguring surgery = less stress. Better yet, find a way to PREVENT cancer altogether. That is why I get so frustrated when I see a report like this, in which money and energy were spent studying something that seems so damn obvious.

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Author: Cancer Curmudgeon

Oct 2010 diagnosed with Stage 3, HER2+ Breast Cancer. Completed treatment Jan 2012. Waaaaaay over pink. Applying punk rock sensibility to how I do cancer.

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