Finding the New You After a Cancer Diagnosis – Cleveland Clinic Healthy Now Survey, Reading Suggestions, Tom Hanks, Virtual Travel ideas, Cancer Whisperer!

Dear Fellow Traveler!

There is growing evidence for the notion that cancer therapies may age our bodies prematurely, as nicely outlined in this article by a geriatric oncology pioneer who sadly died at a too-young age due to a car accident. This week, while doing some self-reflection and talking with other cancer survivors, I wondered if cancer can also stress/strain/accelerate one’s emotional development. When I researched, I found out that might indeed explain a lot about the identity crisis cancer survivors often find themselves in at some point along their journey. Let me try to explain.

Per the psychosocial developmental stages of life, as described by Erikson, deeply reflecting upon one’s life usually does not take place until one hits age 60+. But many cancer survivors find themselves torpedoed forwards into this reflective life stage as they wonder what they have accomplished and what their legacies will be if they should die prematurely. (This is a very normal reaction as long as it does not overtake you, in which case, please talk with your loved ones and health care providers). Per Erikson, humans continue to mature from birth through the end of their lives, striving for their own unique balance in overcoming particular life-stage specific conflicts:

  • Stage 1:
    • Period: Infancy
    • Conflict: Trust vs. Mistrust
    • Goal: Sense of security, safety, reliability
  • Stage 2:
    • Period: Early childhood
    • Conflict: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
    • Goal: Independence, autonomy
  • Stage 3:
    • Period: Preschool
    • Conflict: Initiative vs. Guilt
    • Goal: Purpose
  • Stage 4:
    • Period: School Age
    • Conflict: Industry vs. Inferiority
    • Goal: Competence
  • Stage 5:
    • Period: Adolescence
    • Conflict: Identity vs. Role Confusion
    • Goal: Personal identity
  • Stage 6:
    • Period: Young Adulthood
    • Conflict: Intimacy vs. Isolation
    • Goal: Development of strong and lasting relationships
  • Stage 7:
    • Period: Middle Adulthood
    • Conflict: Generativity vs. Stagnation
    • Goal: Accomplishments like raising a family, succeeding at work, and volunteering in the community
  • Stage 8:
    • Period: Maturity
    • Conflict: Ego Integrity vs. Despair
    • Goal: Wisdom and satisfaction

These stages are arbitrary (in terms of the age they start/end) and fluid. When challenged by an external stressor like cancer, previously-acquired coping skills may not suffice anymore. The experiences you have had in your life will determine how overwhelming (or even traumatizing) a cancer diagnosis may become — and if it will be an opportunity for emotional growth or a trigger for emotional stress or despair. You may need to go back and forth between stages to refine or rework your coping skills. 

After this long introduction the big question is, how can you find the “new you” or relief for your “identity crisis”? A lot has been written about this. But in the end, everyone has to make their own peace with their own unique life story, which may take time. A key aspect of working towards finding the new you is the refinement of priorities and coping styles. This sometimes may include processing past hurt with help from a talk therapist. But here are a few general pointers that you may find helpful:

  • Are you doing something because you think you need it (e.g. to fit in with societal expectations) or because you want it? Be true to yourself – dare to be authentic!
  • To prevent loneliness, surround yourself with people who accept you for who you are and are not afraid to join you on your cancer journey. If friends like this are hard to find nearby, you may find comfort in online friendships. 
  • Set a meaningful, fulfilling creative or altruistic goal and stick to it. Quality matters more than quantity – in particular when you have functional impairments – “if you cannot run, walk”!
  • It’s never too late to start a new venture! See this man who after retirement felt “he was waiting for his obituary” – and started his own business at an older age to “get his blood flowing”!
  • Allow yourself to be spontaneous, laugh, and make memories.
  • Recognize that your actions impact others through the ripple effect (legacy!). Work to make that impact authentic, respectful, and memorable.
  • Become comfortable with change. It’s the only constant in life.
  • It’s easy to be self-critical. When reflecting on your life, recognize that you did the best you could with the knowledge, wisdom, and resources you had. 

Remember, we are all works in progress!!!

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