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Attitude Plays Role After Cancer Diagnosis

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Someone close to me recently had a cancer scare. A young mother with two young children, and a history of cancer in her family.

It didn't look good, doctors told her. She tried not to be a wreck, but she was a wreck anyway. She even had trouble praying, though she is a deeply spiritual woman.

Then the biopsy results came back. No cancer.

It was such a relief. Just looking in from the outside, I had dreaded the thought of watching her go through all that cancer stuff.

So many people get cancer, it seems. This year alone, an estimated 1.3 million people will be diagnosed with cancer in the United States. Last week, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported that cancer deaths may be leveling off, after several years of decline.

The other day I received a book in the mail titled, "Heaven Can Wait: Surviving Cancer." It was sent by one of the co-authors, Charlie Jones, who had just had dinner with a former editor of mine. Jones' book looks at the whole process of coping with cancer once you're past the initial shock.

Jones, of La Jolla, Calif., had been a network sportscaster for four decades, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997 for his work in broadcasting. In December 2001, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In the year that followed, he talked with dozens of people, both patients and professionals, about the cancer experience. His new book is a compilation of those conversations.

It's no scientific survey. But the common thread is that attitude makes a difference in the quality of life people achieve, once they're living with cancer.

That doesn't mean attitude affects outcomes. To the contrary, there is no evidence that cancer is caused or affected by stress or bad moods.

The issue for Jones is how not to get stuck in a rut.

Some of the comments in his book are worth sharing. Here are a few:

From John Trombold, medical director of the Scripps Stevens Cancer Center in La Jolla, Calif.: "I've always felt, but never been able to prove, that we all have our own coping mechanism. . . . I think the coping mechanism you have going into cancer is the same coping mechanism you'll have when you get there. For some people, everything is a major issue. Some of the people who I think are most stressed are the ones who can't separate the major items from the minor items on a daily basis."

From Wendy Lythgoe of Seattle, dealing with Hodgkins lymphoma at age 27: "I don't think it's how hard you fall, it's how far you bounce back. My bounce is a little shallow right now. I'm kind of deflated. I'm trying to put the air back in the ball."

From James Sherrill, a La Jolla, Calif., ophthalmologist who had colon and prostate cancer: "The way you handle it is the answer to the question, how's your spiritual life? ... One of the problems men have is that we don't share intimacies, we share experiences. Women share intimacies. Women nurture, women support. Men, in general, cannot communicate on a gut level because of testosterone and the way we're brought up. Cancer brings about a whole middle life-changing process."

From Maryann Rosenthal, a clinical psychologist, also from La Jolla: "There are five steps in coping with cancer. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. ... The final step is acceptance and with that comes hope and quality of life."

From Elizabeth Davidson, a homemaker from Los Angeles: "I don't like to think about it a lot. I focus on living my normal life. Everyone copes in a different way, and my first rule of coping is to get out of bed in the morning."

I spoke by phone with Jones, who is now 72, and he told me it has taken him almost two years to regain a moderate degree of strength.

"There are days you wake up, and it's all you can do to walk down the hall, have breakfast and read the newspapers," he said. "Then you go back and take a nap. This is normal.

"But of all things, get out of bed, even if you stand in the driveway, and have a positive attitude."

What he learned, he said, is that everyone's cancer is different. What cancer patients have in common, he said, is that they all need to learn how to cope. For many, it's through faith.

Beyond that, it sure helps to be surrounded by the love and support of family and friends - which is something else that came through in the book.


(Diane Evans is a staff writer at the Akron Beacon Journal. Though she has researched the information in this column, she has no training in medicine or science. Readers should consult carefully with their physicians before relying on anything in the column. If you have questions or suggestions for Evans, contact her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640, or by e-mail at


(c) 2003, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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