Cancer Coping: Living with Uncertainty

Written By: Cobie Whitten, PhD

While uncertainty is inevitable, it is hard. We yearn for certainty and security about the future. This is especially true after we have encountered a potential threat to our health or well-being.

The more we resist the uncertainty, the more pain we experience. By acknowledging and even accepting the unanswered questions and the inability to know the future, we free up energy to be in this present moment (which of course is all we really have). We do have the ability to control what we choose to pay attention to – even when it feels like things are out of control. For example, the simple technique of focusing on your breath and being present is often amazingly effective. 

In my work as a psycho-oncologist, I suggest that folks control all they can – “dot the i’s and cross the t’s” (e.g., have a trusted health care team, do good self-care, have an advanced care directive, etc.) and then live their lives with meaning, joy, and love. You may be able to meet some of your goals on your own; others may require some assistance – please do not be hesitant about getting assistance.

In situations that feel out of control, self-awareness, recognizing your own needs, and self-advocating can help you feel empowered. Give yourself permission to throw out previous priorities and embrace new ones. As I used to tell my college students, it is not a question of whether boulders come at you in life . . . they will. The question is what you will do when the boulders come. What coping tools do you have? Use whatever threat you are experiencing now to enhance your flexibility and coping skills: Expand your toolbox. 

Some other suggestions:

  • Surround yourself with caring loving people. Isolating yourself is both a cause and effect of depression and anxiety. 
  • Laugh. It is healing and restorative.   
  • Do something tender and wonderful for yourself regularly. Do not wait until you are in distress. 
  • Cope actively: Find SOMETHING active you can do . . . formulate action plan to feel less helpless (even if it is just focusing on your breath).

Questions to think about:

  1. Who in your life is most important to you?
  2. What would you want to do if you could do anything?
  3. What would you most regret NOT doing?

You can consciously decide what to think about and whom you want to spend your time with and what you want to do. Why are we alive?  Why do we want to stay alive?  What is your purpose?  How can you attain it?  I subscribe to the adage by Rachel Naomi Remen that the whole reason we are here is to “grow in wisdom and learn to love better.”

We can also flip the way we perceive uncertainty – as Steven Petrow wrote in a New York Times piece entitled, “Uncertainty is Hope”

“When things are overwhelmingly hard and scary, and the prognosis is generally not good, sometimes hope lies in the unknown. I had never imagined uncertainty in that way. When there’s no hope, I realized, the future is certain, dead certain.”

Uncertainty is hope?!  When I first read that it blew me away. And now it helps me stay grounded.

I’ll close with the motto from Harmony Hill, the extraordinary retreat center in Union, WA that offers a myriad of wellness and cancer resources:

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass – it’s about learning to dance in the rain.

-Anonymous, more recently attributed to Vivian Greene

May we all learn to dance (or perhaps just be still) even when it is storming.

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash