6 Things Cancer Survivors Can Teach Us About Resilience
This past year has been nothing short of a daily roller coaster. It can be compared to the physical and emotional trials of an ultra-endurance event through a remote part of the world, but with no map, support team or clear finish line.
With the entire world affected, it is difficult to comprehend how deeply and diversely the pandemic has impacted us. As we each seek a “new normal,” a large portion of the population has already experienced something similar. For this vulnerable population, the addition of COVID-19 has elevated their fears and uncertainty.
For the nearly 17 million cancer survivors in the United States, the intensity of what most of us are currently experiencing is not entirely new. Even years after diagnosis, the physical, emotional and financial health effects of a cancer diagnosis are often still present. The compounding impact of the pandemic has similarly amplified fears, anxieties and concerns about job and economic stability and access to care.
Have you ever wondered why some people are able to use crises in a positive way, while others struggle to adapt? Forward-thinking individuals have used this pandemic to recalibrate and reassess, perhaps even creating new support groups to help others get through this challenging time. Others, however, have a more difficult time understanding and adapting to the change. What’s the difference between these groups of people? Are some born with skills or traits that help them thrive or have they learned how to adapt through experience?
Behavioral psychology can help us understand why some people lean into adversity while others crawl under the covers. The capacity to recover from a difficult time or the ability to adjust to a new challenge is better understood as resilience. People who are resilient have the ability to bend, adapt and bounce back from challenges.
Fortunately, resilience is a combination of personality and experience, meaning that some aspects of resilience are innate, while others are learned. Resilient people are aware of situations that may trigger reactions. They can more easily identify their own emotional reactions, and the behavior of those around them. Resilient people can maintain control of a situation and think of new ways to tackle problems, even when in crisis.
Challenging situations offer us the opportunity to improve our resilience by adjusting how we handle them.
As a health and exercise professional, you can be a daily role model of resilience. By using exercise and other wellness resources, you coach clients and participants in ways that inherently promote and develop physical and emotional resilience. Coaching a client through a challenging exercise or guiding them to reach a new goal and providing reinforcement are some of the many ways you help create resilience in those with whom you work.
After nearly two decades of working with individuals affected by cancer, it has become clear that there is a significant difference between those who are resilient and those who struggle. Resilient individuals don't let cancer take control over their lives. They don't look at statistics as a limiting factor, but as something to defy. They partner with their care team instead of taking a back seat and passively accepting whatever comes.
It’s important to realize that resilience is like a muscle and, as such, requires similar attention, stimulation and consistency to develop and maintain over time. The good news is that working on resilience can happen throughout one’s day, even without conscious thought. Following are six lessons I have learned from working on the front lines of cancer that you and your clients can take to engage and flex the muscles of resilience that can have a tremendous impact on nearly every area of your lives. Also included are specific actions to offer your clients to help them put these steps into practice.
1. Recognize what you can (and can't) control.
Every day, we face situations and circumstances that we cannot control. Some of these, such as a torrential downpour, can be anticipated and addressed (by making sure you have an umbrella, for example). Others, such as a traffic accident on your way to an appointment, are impossible to predict and can cause you to be late and sour your mood for the entire day.
In life, it’s important to realize that we can't always control what happens to us. Just like a traffic accident, it has nothing to do with us, yet we are impacted. This is a lesson every person who has been diagnosed with cancer has had to learn.
It can be so easy to get frustrated and react when things occur without warning, but ultimately they will happen most days of our lives. Overreacting to circumstances we can’t control can make the situation even more difficult. Resilience means taking a deep breath and looking at the situation differently and recognizing when you can’t control a situation or another person.
Control Action Steps
- Picture an imaginary wall where you can just toss something over where it belongs never to be seen again.
- Write down whatever it is that is outside your control and take the action of throwing it away.
2. Own your reactions and make yours positive.
We all have certain triggers that can create positive or negative responses. Although it may seem simple to remind yourself and others to stay positive, keeping a glass-half-full attitude is a key factor to deflecting stressors.
When you feel yourself or hear others reacting in a way that is fueled by emotion, take a moment to assess if there is any rationale behind the negative reaction. It’s important to remember that life can feel unfair and lonely. Some days you feel jealous, angry and frustrated with life and others around you, and there are days when you feel like your life is much more difficult than others’.
By owning your emotions as a reaction to something such as stress or feelings of overload, you will find yourself in a place where you can make change. Ask yourself if you are frustrated because of changes that you need to make in your life or how you are handling what life is currently throwing at you.
Positive Action Steps
- Smile! When you are talking to someone or getting ready to text them back, smile and feel how quickly your energy changes. Interestingly, video platforms such as Zoom and FaceTime can be beneficial because you can see yourself and how your expression and demeanor might be seen by others on the call.
- Watch a funny movie or silly animal videos to trigger a dopamine (pleasure) response.
- Carve out time each day to do something that you enjoy or that gives you pleasure.
3. Remember your "why."
The realization of what we should or shouldn’t do isn’t usually our barrier. Rather, determining why we should exercise, eat the vegetables or skip the wine at night can be the key to following through.
Encourage your clients to ask themselves if improving their fitness or losing weight is beneficial to their day-to-day lives, confidence, energy and overall health. Are emotional stressors such as loneliness, anxiety or comparison triggering self-sabotage? Keeping in touch with their why can help them to stay on track on tough days. For example, remembering how good they feel after a workout can be crucial when the time comes to exercise again, especially if they are feeling tired and their brain is telling them to rest.
Find Your Why Action Steps
- Identify a 100-day goal along with five reasons why this goal is important. If this exercise is difficult, then the goal is likely not very important. It’s important to choose something to which you feel strongly connected.
- Review an average day in your life and identify the barriers to your priority goal. Brainstorm ways to reduce or remove each barrier.
- Share your why with someone you are close to or write it down.
4. Grab what is within reach first.
While your clients may be anxious to make huge goals for big life changes, it is important to stay mindful of the steps needed to get there. This can feel overwhelming and often leads many people to abandon their goals altogether.
Instead, remind your clients to focus on the things that they can do today or this week that can help move them toward their goals, especially on those days when their enthusiasm may be lacking. For example, if their goal is to do an endurance event, encourage them to lace up their shoes and take a walk outside. Or, if they’re short on time, they could set a timer and complete a brief body-weight workout with exercises such as squats and countertop push-ups. If weight loss is a goal, they could look for one new healthy recipe, make a grocery list and decide when they will try out this new meal.
Simple Action Steps
- Ask yourself, what is one thing that I have been meaning to do but have been putting off?
- Get up and move, even if it’s just around the room while you are working from home. Try something that does not require a lot of thought such as a walk or body-weight movements.
- Remove or reduce one barrier habit today. For example, cut down on time spent scrolling social media, skip the habitual glass of wine or steer clear of interactions with people who sabotage your efforts and self-esteem.
5. Embrace challenge and failure.
The internet offers the world at our fingertips and social media promises unlimited connections, but these digital platforms can also lead us to believe in a version of reality that isn’t altogether true. While failure is difficult to handle, it's an aspect of life that is only avoidable if you never attempt to do anything. Help your clients reframe their thinking and understand that challenges offer opportunities to grow and become more resilient.
Challenge Action Steps
- Consider taking an online course on a topic with which you are unfamiliar.
- Contact someone you would like to meet, whether professionally or personally, to find a time to connect. At a time when video communications have become increasingly common, this type of interaction may be easier than ever to instigate.
- Create a new meal or research a new food preparation or cuisine you’ve been interested in trying.
6. Seek out support.
Community is one of the most important components of resilience. While personal strength is important, having connection and support is an integral part of how we are hardwired.
While we live in an increasingly accessible world, true connection is diminishing. The current prevalence of remote learning and work, combined with a dramatic reduction in social activities, has left many of us feeling disconnected from our support systems, which typically include family, friends and colleagues. This can feel like a considerable loss.
For people who experience trauma such as cancer, finding other “survivors” is part of the recovery process. Having access to others who can provide specific support or lead by example is essential to remaining hopeful and believing that there is a future beyond today.
Support Action Steps
- Identify what communities you might be missing. School? Work? Social? Encourage them to look for specific places they can connect with those people.
- Invest daily time and energy into one or two specific groups that provide needed support.
- Say no to communities that are more of a drain than a source of energy and encouragement. If necessary, remove yourself from social media or texting groups, or simply turn off notifications.
Training to improve overall health offers the added benefit of improved mental and emotional health. Tackling new movements, recovering from injuries and leading others to do the same can feel like completing an Ironman Triathlon, every single day. When facing new challenges, which we all do daily, remind yourself that life is full of unplanned events, but that's what we're actually training for. At the end of a long, difficult day, take time to celebrate that you are still here to see what new joys and challenges tomorrow will bring.