May 18, 2010

Power of Positive Language?

In response to my post Power of Realistic vs Power of Positive Thinking, H Lee D (aka Heather) left the comment that she’s always spoken about her cancer in the past tense. She said “I had cancer” even before she was cancer free.  This kind of language isn’t for me and isn’t found in my book Everything Changes.  I’ve never been in remission and pretending to be is medically inaccurate and too far from the emotional reality of my life.  Plus, I’ve never seen scientific evidence that our minds or our language can change the biomachanics of our tumors.

But Heather is one smart cookie, who has left dozens of insightful comments on my blog and sparked incredible conversations. So I wanted to better understand why she speaks in the past tense and asked her to write this guest post:

“I had cancer. This is how I spoke of the tumor in my chest, even before my first chemo treatment – in the past tense. My choice of language wasn’t denial — I was completely aware that after two-and-a-half weeks in the hospital, I had just been diagnosed with lymphoma and needed six months of chemo plus radiation.

Almost a year prior, I attended a three-day work training at the K-8 school where I teach. We learned to create visualizations and affirmations, and how and why they are effective. A piece of the training I used through cancer (and in other parts of my daily life) was putting myself where I wanted to be. Act as if it is so. Fake it til you make it: I had cancer.

My first clean PET scan was two months after my first treatment — earlier than medically anticipated. I believe my use of language, affirmations, visualizations all influenced my clean PET scan, but I certainly don’t give them full credit.

This is the basic premise: Your brain likes things to match. For example, if you believe you are clumsy, your brain helps ensure you trip over nothing, so that you are clumsy. Then your belief and your reality match. If you can convince your brain of something you want but currently aren’t, your brain will do what it needs to do to make everything match. It’s important to choose something you can visualize. For example, I can’t imagine myself running a 4-minute mile, so visualizing it would be futile. But I can imagine myself running a 10-minute mile, so I start there.

I alerted close friends and family that I was planning to speak in the past tense about my cancer hoping that they’d think me slightly less insane. No one said anything to me at the time, but their body language and confessions later revealed that they thought I was nuts.

When I called my mother-in-law to share the good news about my first clean scan, she said, “Well, you were right. I thought you were crazy, but you were right.” The oncology counselor at the hospital told me later that she thought I was in denial but had since come to realize that I just had a different outlook than most.”

How do you speak about your cancer? Have you ever used the past tense and if so when did you start? Do you believe language has the power to change biological processes?

Heather is a 34-year-old teacher, wife, friend, dog-mom, dancer, musician, triathlete, dreamer, personal trainer, not necessarily in that order. Check out her health and fitness blog

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November 12, 2009

What Quotes or Scriptures Help In Tough Times?


When  I was 27 years old, I sat on a pleather exam table and had a doctor two years older than me tell me I had cancer.  Everything in my life changed.  But, this is actually not why I called my book Everything Changes.

During cancer treatment, many patients rack up hours sitting on their toilets.  I kept a big stack of reading material next to mine.  I would open to random pages in the Tao de Ching, a Chinese philosophy book written in the 6th century BC.  One day in the midst of wishing my life were different, that my body aches would subside, that I would not be single on a Saturday night sitting on the toilet with cancer – I opened to a random page in the Tao de Ching and pointed to the words ‘Everything Changes’.  And it is true.  I’m now married. I still have cancer but I rarely have body aches.  And I spend much less time in the bathroom.

The mantra ‘Everything Changes’ gets me through the hardest moments of living with cancer.  No matter what any of us are experiencing right now, a basic truth is that everything changes.  It is great to know that I won’t stay stuck anywhere forever.

I’m not naive.  I know change could lead me down hill instead of up.  But that’s just reality.  I don’t need magical thinking to get me through tough times.  I just need a bit of truth that keeps me moving forward.  Everything changes.    That’s real.  That’s something I can count on.  And in desperate times, having something to count on is my definition of hope.

I loved talking to Tracy, a breast cancer patient in Alabama who I interviewed for my book.  Before each treatment, she sat in the parking lot and read Psalm 23.  Do you have a favorite quote, phrase, scripture, or mantra that gets you through hard cancer times?

Check out Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s to learn more about Tracy and how she coped with treatment related fear and depression.

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October 29, 2009

What’s Your Cancer and Religion Connection?


God talk is embedded in a lot of cancer conversations: “It is all a part of God’s plan.” “The universe is trying to tell me something.”  “God doesn’t give you something you cannot handle.” (Major puke on that one.) “I’ll say a prayer for you.”  These exchanges are so common we rarely think twice about them.  Unless you are someone like me who doesn’t believe in God or the Universe.

Many people say a benefit of cancer is connecting with amazing people you might not otherwise meet.  I agree.  And part of that is meeting people with different religious faiths and beliefs, including non-belief.  In Everything Changes, I met and wrote about an Evangelical Christian, conservative Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, Catholic, atheist, and a follower of Amma.  I had with each of these young adult patients open conversations about faith and illness.  I miss these conversations.  Especially because in the greater cancer community, I often feel it is just assumed that I believe in God.

Last week, a super cute 8 year old girl was petting my dog Moses in the park.  Out of the blue she asked me if I believe in God.  When I told her I didn’t, she asked what I believe in.  I replied: “I believe in people, and that if people want to we can help each other out and make great things happen in the world.” She seemed cool with that.  We talked about her Baptist church and then she skipped away to the swings.  I adored this simple, respectful, uncomplicated conversation.

In the cancer community, my not believing in god doesn’t seem as simple.  A lot of patients and families relay on faith to get through illness.   And sometimes it feels a bit uncomfortable when I acknowledge that faith does not play any role in my healthcare.  I don’t judge anyone else who wants to use faith as a part of their healing.  It just isn’t my own cup of tea.

I was raised Jewish.  Judaism is a religion that does not proselytize, and a religion that is in the minority.  I grew up noticing differences in religions yet never assuming that anyone believed in what my family believed and I never wanted or needed them to.

What role does faith play in your health? Have you met people of different faiths in the cancer community? Do you talk openly about your beliefs?

Read Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s for some cool conversations about health care and faith.

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