The news of John McCain’s cancer has shocked and dismayed America. This sad news also offers us an opportunity to talk about a very difficult subject: How we react to life-threatening illness.

In addition to the outpouring of support he has received, you may have noticed  that many of the initial words of encouragement  from notables such as  President Obama urged the Senator to fight his disease.  Others expressed confidence that his toughness would be stronger than the cancer and that he would prevail against it.

While sincere and well meaning, it is important to understand that this attitude is not the only approach for dealing with life and death struggles. The impulse to fight is understandable but it is not necessarily helpful for everyone.  In fact, employing fighting and other war-related metaphors may actually confuse us and complicate the ordeal.  Recently a cancer survivor wrote of her experience with cancer for CNN and explained that comparing her struggle with cancer to waging a war wasn’t useful.  In her essay she notes that war is a battle with an enemy and that there are winners and losers. With cancer however, it’s one’s own cells which have turned against you and there is no lasting victory. The best outcome is simply survival.  Even if one survives many years, in the end, no one escapes death.…/cancer-is-not-a-war-jardin-…/index.html  

While many protest that one must fight the disease,  there is no medical evidence that “fighting” cancer or any other terminal illness has any positive effect on survival rates or chances of recovery.  What does seem to matter and improve one’s chances is having  a positive outlook which is not necessarily a combative one.

Here are some helpful tips to remember when you or a loved one is faced with this grave dilemma:

Calm your Fears  Being aware of, acknowledging, expressing and reality-testing your feelings are all crucial factors in calming the initial panic and re-establishing neuropathways to the reasonable part of your brain. Talking to friends or a therapist is a good way to build a less fearful outlook.  If fears and discouragement persist, seek professional help to check for depressive or other affective disorders.

Get the Facts Write down questions that you have about your illness or condition and treatment options. Do research on the internet and don’t be afraid to ask and even press your doctors for answers.  Having accurate information is the best way to understand and gain perspective on your situation.

Get Support Don’t try to deal with this on your own. Find a group on line or in person who are also dealing with a similar situation. Sharing experiences and trading tips is a powerful way to prevent isolation and lift sagging spirits.

Be Open to the Spiritual Dimensions of Life and Death Dealing with a serious threat to our life exposes us to the ultimate mystery of life itself.  Indeed, the profound meaning of a life-threatening illness is not so much about the details of the disease or its pathogenesis but of the spiritual meaning it brings to our awareness.  If you relate to a religious tradition, seek its wisdom and support.

Facing cancer is a very personal private experience which no other person can claim to completely understand. Each person much discover what is best for him or her self.  That said it is for patients as well as friends and families to understand that there is more than one way to approach the ordeal and that one does not have to “fight to the end”. Accepting death in a calmer way is not necessarily “giving up” or “giving in”.  Coming to terms with and finding serenity in our mortality may not sound as  dramatic as winning a battle but ultimately it is a more important than “keeping up the good fight”.  From the larger perspective, life is not a sports contest or a battle to be won or lost.  It is, at its most profound level, a spiritual journey to one’s ultimate peace.

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow A.A.P.C.   7 30 2017