Relationships - Living With Cancer by Michele Reiss, Ph.D.

Relationships - Living With Cancer by Michele Reiss, Ph.D.

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Michele Reiss, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, educator and author who frequently works with people living with cancer and their loved ones. Dr. Reiss recently authored the book Lessons in Loss and Living: Hope and Guidance for Confronting Serious Illness and Grief (, which guides readers on dealing with a life-threatening illness or the loss of a loved one. In this article, Reiss discusses the different ways in which people understand and cope with a personal medical diagnosis while staying fully engaged in life.

At some point in time, most of us will have to cope with the many challenges involved in being diagnosed with a serious illness, living with a chronic illness or bearing witness to a loved one coping with illness. It has been suggested that “life is what happens while we are all making other plans.” For some, the official diagnosis of an illness such as prostate cancer comes unexpectedly; for others there have been symptoms heralding this unwanted life event. Either way, being officially diagnosed with a potentially serious illness is a daunting new reality. While none of us would choose this new chapter in our lives, it is still your life and worth finding ways to adjust and continue being the person you want to be. There will be many adjustments for loved ones as well, but also the opportunity to strengthen meaningful relationships.

Receiving Bad News

Each of us receives and processes so-called bad news in our own way, based on our respective personality styles. Upon hearing a cancer diagnosis or word of a recent treatment failure, some individuals become visibly shaken. Others respond with a shocked silence and say nothing at all. Others will start asking a large number of fairly specific questions. There is not one right way to respond to bad news. But all of us have the right to be informed about our illness and its treatment options. We all have the right to have access to any information we may need so that we can realistically understand how our illness is progressing and what treatments and supports are available to us. We all have the right to have bad news delivered clearly but compassionately. And we have the right to decide whom we share this information with and when.

It is important, however, to make sure you truly understand the disease-related information you are being told. Most patients recommend bringing along a relative or friend to important doctor visits. It is helpful to have more than one set of ears to accurately hear relevant information. Family members or friends can also help to generate a list of both practical and meaningful questions to be asked at the next appointment. Bringing along a family member or good friend also provides an opportunity for that individual to get some of their questions or concerns addressed as well.

Facts Versus Fears

Being educated about your illness and its progress is not a magic solution to the many challenges of being ill, but it is an important first step in acquiring the information that you will need to make good decisions for yourself and your family. After all, there will be many decisions to make during your prostate cancer journey. Which treatment options do I choose or refuse? What do I tell my family members, friends, children or employers? Do I continue to work or take time off? The answers to each of these questions and many others are unique to the illness and individual involved. But the goal in gathering relevant information is to position yourself to balance the realities of your illness alongside your personal life priorities. If one’s perception of their illness is based on fear instead of facts, there is a risk that potentially helpful treatments may be avoided or precious time may be spent anticipating a worst-case scenario instead of enjoying the day. Conversely, denial of an illness’s seriousness can lead to missed opportunities for meaningful conversations with loved ones.

The Balancing Act

The balancing act of living with a serious illness like advanced prostate cancer and yet staying fully engaged in daily life is a daunting task, but one worth accomplishing. This is not denial. It is accepting the reality of being ill but not allowing that illness to totally define who you are and what your life is all about. The therapeutic mantra for this amazing cognitive feat is, “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” This hopeful but realistic approach allows one to address such issues as financial planning or preparing the children while also attending to the business of living each day as fully as possible.

This tough love approach to serious illness suggests that you say something to yourself like, “This illness may or may not ultimately win the war for my life, but not today. Today I choose life. Right now I am not dying from this illness, I am living with it and I want to live well. So let’s talk about what I want to do today.” If you are attempting to find your way in the world of living with cancer, you are not alone. According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 12 million Americans with a history of cancer were alive in 2008. This notable number doesn’t include all of the close friends, relatives, etc. that are also touched by the cancer experience.

Anyone diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness, or their loved ones, has earned the right to visit the land of overwhelming fear, periodic despair and occasional “why me.” But the goal of the above mentioned balancing act is to choose not to live there. Residing in despair is an incredibly painful existence and may inadvertently cause you to waste precious time that could be spent living and loving.

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Serious illness is an unwanted and undeserved reminder that life is a time-limited gift – one not to be squandered thoughtlessly. There are other gentler reminders of the inevitable passage of time such as birthdays, anniversaries and the like. But each transition, whether welcome or not, provides the opportunity for us to be a bit more thoughtful regarding what is most important to us and how we are to best spend our time. Have you noticed that some folks seem to live life fully engaged while others as if on automatic pilot? The key ingredients for living one’s life in Technicolor versus black and white include both an acute appreciation of what is (despite what may have been lost) and a sense of clarity regarding what is really important (life priorities).

My hopes for anyone coping with serious illness, and for the rest of us, are to find ways to live life as meaningfully and comfortably as possible. I would like for all of us to have days filled with moments of vivid appreciation for what is or has been, and for each of us to believe that we have done the best we could to live and love well.

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