The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

8 Mental Tips for Coping with Cancer Treatment

Applying the Athletic Mindset to the Battle Against Cancer

I have three close friends currently going through chemotherapy. The brutality of chemotherapy—and all cancer treatments—makes any athletic event I've ever done look like a walk in the park. I am blown away by the mental toughness, grit, resilience and determination that my friends are exhibiting as they go through various cancer treatments involving: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and the myriad of treatments and chemical warfare used to battle this horrific disease. Cancer sucks much more than I ever realized before it touched my life so closely in the past few months. I have a new appreciation for how widespread and devastating it is.

My friends Nikki, Logan and Tom are all so brave and incredibly resilient. Their strength and tenacity is awe-inspiring. My friends battling cancer and I have used athletic metaphors like "I'm bonking; I'm in the home stretch now; The wheels are coming off the bus; I'm at the turn-around point..." to describe the various stages of their cancer treatment, which is why I decided to compile these '8 tips'.

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The Athlete's Way is all about parallels between sports and life, but I am well aware that applying athletic metaphors to tragic and atrocious human experiences can easily appear to trivialize them. Cancer has so much gravitas. The path of destruction it leaves goes beyond any trite 'self-help' advice I have to offer as an athlete.  I do not mean to downplay the massiveness of a cancer battle by comparing it to sport. That is not my intention.

I hope that these 8 mental tips from athletes perspective might offer some amount of insight from my life experience that could potentially help you when facing any extreme physical, mental and spiritual challenge—like going through cancer treatment. 

1. MIND OVER MATTER

Success in ultra-endurance sports is much more about your mind and spirit than it is about your body. As an ultra-runner, you triumph in a race when you are able to push your body well beyond its human limits and keep going to reach the finish line. Even when you are completely beaten down and hopeless you rally as much inner strength as you can muster to keep on going.  I have learned many valuable lessons about the tenacity of the human spirit by pushing my body to the limit and relying on mental toughness, human unity, and spiritual connectedness-very similar to what I see my friends exhibiting now as they battle cancer. The human mind and spirit is ultimately more powerful than the human body.

2. STAY IN THE PRESENT TENSE

My friends dealing with chemotherapy are going through each stage of the cycle one-day-at-a-time, or more accurately moment-by-moment. I do the same as an endurance athlete. No matter how much physical suffering I experience in a race I have a mantra which is: "Right here, right now I am doing the best I can."  I try to give 110% at every stage of a race. Sometimes 110% effort is technically a 'sub-par' level of performance because of the circumstances, but that is irrelevant. The effort stays the same. The only promise I ever make before a race is to try my very best. That's all I can do.

As an athlete, I never dwell on how far I have to go, or the hell that I've already been through during a race. I keep my consciousness in the present tense and it creates a zen-like state of calmness and confidence. I accept the current state of my body and the circumstances with pragmatic optimism--staying focused on the task at hand of putting one foot in front of the other and moving closer to the finish line. My friends with cancer are doing the same.

3. ANNIHILATE SELF- DOUBT: YOU WILL PREVAIL!

Sometimes believing that you will succeed requires a bit of self-delusion. Sometimes you have to have pig-headed conviction that you will triumph over adversity even when the odds are clearly not in your favor. As someone on the sidelines rooting for my friends, I try to offer as much love, positive energy and practical assistance as possible.  I refuse—even for a millisecond—to allow my thoughts to drift to a place of thinking that any of my friends are going to lose the battle against cancer. They are not going to be defeated by this!!

It always helped me as an athlete to have people on my support crew who had complete faith in my ability to prevail--especially when I no longer believed in myself and had lost my will to go on.  For example: About 18 hours into my 24-hour Treadmill run at the Kiehl's store I hit rock bottom. I was completely tapped out and slowed from a jog to a walk. I was convinced that I could not keep going and that the race was over for me. At that point, my boss Edgar Huber (who was also the president of Kiehl's) came over and stood directly in front of my treadmill. He looked me straight in the eyes and began to gently pound his fist on the control panel of the machine while declaring with matter-of-fact conviction: "You WILL do this, Chris. I KNOW you will." Edgar's unflagging determination was contagious. It flipped a switch in my mind and gave me the chutzpah to fulfill Edgar's prophecy. This kind of sheer force of will can move mountains and conquer just about anything. It's extremely helpful to have people on the sidelines rooting for you--especially when they maintain an unwavering level of faith and conviction that you will prevail no matter how bad things are.

4. PERSONIFY ADVERSITY: CONQUER THE "BEAST"

As an athlete facing adversity out on a race course I developed a useful method of overcoming challenges by personifying the obstacle and talking/cursing at 'it' in the 3rd person. For example: If I am coming up a steep hill on my bike with gale force winds and rain pelting me—I will personify the wind, the rain and the hill itself and trash talk each of them--just like you would a nemesis or arch rival. I would say to the wind: " You think I'm not that strong? You're wrong. The harder you push against me the more alive I feel and the more determined I become to beat you. So, bring it on!" 

My friends and I have given cancer nick-names like: "The Beast, L'il Bastard, Mother *ucker..."  We bully the cancer by talking about it using these derogatory monikers.  Trash talking cancer in the 3rd person may never be scientifically proven to make any difference, but giving it a nasty nickname helps to visualize it as a tangible enemy. When trash talking the 'beast' using as many expletives and curse words makes the trash talk more effective. Even if you don't like to utter swear words, try dropping the F-bomb silently as many times as possible when trash talking adversity inside your own silent inner-dialogue and see if it works for you. It definitely works for my friends and me.

5. EMBRACE THE LOVE AND GOOD WILL OF OTHERS

Love is the most powerful drug. Having a strong support network during any endurance event is key to pulling yourself through. The same is true when fighting cancer. My friend Logan's closest circle of high school friends got mohawks with colored streaks around Halloween to show solidarity for his second battle with neuroblastoma. Before the Senior Class photo recently the entire student body showed their love and support for Logan by spray painting their hair with various colors.

This video captures the breadth and strength of Logan's support network:

 

6. YOU CALL THIS PAIN? THIS IS RELATIVELY NOTHING

There is a certain 'theory of relativity' you gain when you have experienced an extreme level of all consuming physical pain that occupies every cell of your body and neuron of your mind. Once you've experienced a level of physical suffering you thought unimaginable it makes the aches and pains that used to 'hurt' seem completely insignificant.

I can only imagine what the pain of cancer treatment feels like. I've asked my friends to describe it, but cannot truly fathom what the chemical warfare of being poisoned by chemotherapy must feel like. The only thing I can relate it to is the degrees of pain that I experienced through ultrarunning when I pushed myself to the point that I almost died and landed up in the ICU for 5 days—Foolish, I know....but I did learn just how much it physically hurts when your body is on the brink of a near death experience.

One back-handed blessing that comes from going down into the '9th circle of hell' in terms of pain is that it creates a new perspective of how lucky we all are when we are not sick or in pain. You appreciate the little things in life that you once took for granted and realize how beautiful life is.  I learned this as an athlete and my friend Nikki talks about it during the second week after a chemo treatment when her body bounces back and she returns to the land of the living.

7. LAUGHING AND CRYING IS THE SAME RELEASE

While competing in ultra-marathons I have gotten to the point where I literally had diarrhea running down my thighs, was dry heaving, peeing ketchup, with my feet covered in blisters...you name it. It's hard to have a sense of humor when you think you're going to die. Nonetheless, sometimes in these terrible, dire moments my support crew and I would spontaneously burst out laughing. It was a subconscious response when faced with two options: either we are going to laugh about this or we are going to cry about it. So, let's laugh.

Having a sense of humor isn't possible sometimes, obviously,  but the moment there is an opportunity to have some levity and laughter--seize it! Laughter is the best antidote for any 'sufferfest'.  Over the past few months, during my visits with my soul mate, Nikki, we have gone back and forth between sobbing one second and then having a laughing attack moments later...Both emotional outlets are equally cathartic and a part of the process of getting through chemotherapy with your psyche and sense of humor still in tact.

8. HAPPINESS IS A DECISION

One of my friends who has gone through chemotherapy said that she understands now how much of a difference your attitude makes when dealing with cancer treatment. She realized during treatment that every day she had to make a DECISION to look on the bright side. Now that she has been through chemotherapy, she sees how easy it would be to fall into a 24/7 state of complete and utter despair and why some cancer patients stop doing their chemotherapy half way through when it becomes too much to bear.

As a runner, you realize that cynical and negative thoughts drain your energy—cause you to slow down and, if they persist, ultimately you quit. So, if you want to triumph and reach the finish line, or finish your workout, you learn to stay positive. 

I passed a community center on my jog yesterday with a sign posted in big square letters on a marquee that read: "Happiness isn't a Prize. It's a Decision." Even though I spent years with my eye on the prize of trophies, medals and blue ribbons-the most valuable life lesson I learned from those experiences was that I had the free-will to choose happiness over negativity in every situation.

Sometimes things are so bad in your life that you have to acknowledge them for what they are and not be a Pollyanna. I know it's impossible to happy and optimistic when the reality of the situation is really, really bad and that it is cliché to recommend having a 'positive attitude, seeing the glass as half full and looking on the bright side..." but these explanatory styles and points of view really can make a difference. And what other option do you have besides trying not to wallow in despair?

CONCLUSION

I am learning so much about true inner strength, grit and the power of the human spirit by witnessing my close friends battle cancer. Beating cancer makes ultra endurance athletics look like child's play. The sadness and pain surrounding cancer overwhelms us all at various points and we have meltdowns. The emotions go in waves. Some days the gravity of the situation seems so ominous that any 'self-help' advice (like I have provided here) seems trite, cloying and offensive. I get it. But at other times advice like this seems helpful, which is why I decided to post these mental tips. Please take my advice with a grain of salt, dismiss it if you want or expand on it and adapt it in a way that works for you.

UPDATE:  Psychology Today blogger, Jeff Wise, posted a fantastic article in his Extreme Fear column called "Forging a Soul of Iron" which touches on many of the same themes covered in this entry. I consider his blog an Essential Read. You can check it out at:   http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/extreme-fear/201111/forging-s...

Lastly, please share any insights you have about coping with cancer from which other readers might benefit in the comments below.

 

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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