Please forgive the personal nature of this month’s writing. I don’t know how to communicate my thoughts this month without tapping into an experience from which my wife, Laurie, and I are just now emerging.
We were devastated. It seemed that we progressed through the Kubler-Ross grief cycle of shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance several times per minute. It was even difficult for me to say the words “Laurie” and “cancer” in the same sentence. Early in our attempts to deal with this turn in our road, my wife looked at me and said, “OK, Mr. Positive Psychology, do your stuff.” I was grasping, desperate to find something to help; some theory, some book, some research. Nothing seemed immediately comparable to the diagnosis we were facing.
Within days we were dealing with tests, surgeries, and the beginning of chemo. We were introduced to an oncologist, a plastic surgeon, counselors, “survivors,” and even wig shops – in short, we were introduced into a whole new world. As Laurie said, “We were forced to join a club full of wonderful people – none of whom wanted to be members.” We gained a new appreciation of the sobering statistics of breast cancer. Every three seconds a women gets a phone call like our Sunday afternoon call – every three seconds…
We quickly learned that life is fragile and that things happen that are completely beyond our control. After many disappointments, dashed hopes, and more bad news, I stopped praying and hoping for a cure. I started hoping and praying for the strength to respond well.
This notion of responding well caught my attention and my thinking. While we couldn’t control what was happening to us, we could control how we responded. As we came to grips with the reality of what we were facing, Laurie and I vowed that we would not allow this “cancer thing” to destroy our relationship or our family. In addition, we vowed that we would use this “cancer thing” to bind us together even more closely. As has always been the case in our marriage, Laurie led the way. Her bravery and commitment and good humor paved the way for me and our daughters to respond well.
We all got involved. I managed the medications including administering the 32 Neupogen® injections! Annie made a chemo-treatment-count-down poster. Sara kept the family routines going. Laurie and I went to every doctor appointment and chemo treatment together. We all celebrated the milestones along the way.
I must add here that we were not alone. We were joined by our wonderfully supportive extended family. The phone trees were active and hot on both sides of the family with updates traveling faster than lightening. In addition, our neighbors, friends, work colleagues, school colleagues and church friends all rallied around.One friend planted flowers along the path to our front door so Laurie would see them and feel happy returning from her treatments. Another group of friends brought beach related gifts to us after each chemo treatment to encourage us to follow through on our goal of going on a celebration vacation after completing all the treatments. (We booked a trip to the Caribbean in April!) And the food… more than we could eat! My work sent a huge catered Italian dinner that took us several days to eat. I got a shoebox to keep the cards we started receiving. Soon we graduated to a big file box and now we are looking for an even larger box.
Responding Well – How do we do that? What does it mean? What good does it do?
Here’s what I learned: responding well is a choice. When faced with the reality of what life throws your way, you have a choice to make. It seems to me that this initial choice is pivotal and sets the direction of all that follows. Our choice to respond well led us in a natural and almost intuitive way to what Positive Psychologists call Positive Interventions.
Our box of cards became our “Positive Portfolio” where we would go to savor the love and support that was manifest all around us. Some of the cards were hilarious and some of them were deeply spiritual. All were full of hope. Savoring these expressions of support lifted our hearts and spirits and helped us to respond well.
I clearly remember a conversation when Laurie and I were lamenting our situation – a down time. Almost with resignation we acknowledged that we should be grateful that we were talking about months of chemo remaining rather than months of life remaining. This changed our thinking and we began to count the blessings we were reaping in the midst of the day to day challenges of the chemo treatments. This version of the “Three Blessings Exercise” helped us to respond well.
When our friends brought us the beach-related items we started looking at possible trips as a post chemo celebration. We talked about it a lot. We explored various options – St. John, St. Thomas, Hawaii, The Bahamas, The Dominican Republic. We asked friends for recommendations. We searched the web. We talked about how Laurie would look and feel after the chemo treatments were complete. Now that our trip is actually less than a month away, it feels like a dream come true. This version of the “Best Future Self Exercise” helped us to respond well.
In my January writing I discussed the power of explanatory style. We tried to be conscious of how we talked about this whole cancer challenge. We chose to see it as a temporary and narrowly focused event in our lives – NOT permanent and pervasive. While some of the effects will undoubtedly linger for months or years, the shock, fear, and worry are passing. Adopting a “Positive Explanatory Style” helped us to respond well.
In the end, responding well to any challenge means getting real about what is happening and then choosing to adopt the strength and perspective that comes through positive interventions like the ones discussed here.
By the way, Laurie is doing great and we are happy. We renewed our daughters’ passports. We are packing our bags and breaking out the sunscreen – lots of sunscreen. Its time to celebrate!
Flowers along the path courtesy of KevinReese