Healing can happen whether or not we have an incurable disease. Curing a condition occurs physically, but healing can take place on an emotional and spiritual level. Once you have a cancer diagnosis, your life is forever changed. At least, that is what happened to me.
I am grateful to be feeling well four years after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. They initially told me that since my cancer had spread, the prognosis was dismal. Today, I am very grateful for a new drug that I credit with keeping me alive. But, while I am living a full life, cancer is never forgotten.
“When one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, a key decision involves how to spend your final phase of life. I will finish my life as I have lived it for 69 years – helping to make the world a better place by sharing scholarship and love.”
I turned 69 this September, which may also be why I was particularly moved when I read an article by Roger Weissberg, also 69, written shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer.
I only met Roger once, but he was a friendly man with kind eyes. He was a scholar, one of the leaders of the movement to teach children social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. These are tools that children can learn to manage emotions, communicate, and engage in positive relationships.
His organization, CASEL, has enriched the lives of millions of young people around the world. In his article, he writes, “I could never have anticipated that at the age of 66, the exact skills and attitudes and practices that I believed would help children navigate daily challenges more effectively would also help keep me alive.”
In his inimitable way, Roger identified four big ideas to apply social and emotional learning to health care. His ideas resonate with me and match feelings I had during and since my diagnosis.
Some people opt to keep their condition secret, and that is their choice. But, for me, disclosing my cancer brought me closer to others, resulting in a tidal wave of love and support I could never have imagined. For Roger, it resulted in him being able to say, “I love you.”
Roger also applied the concept of authentic sharing to engage with medical professionals. He thanked his doctors and palliative team for their honesty and willingness to both listen and support him. I also was very grateful to my oncologist for not sugar-coating his words while encouraging me to stay strong.
Make Decisions Empathetically
Roger appreciated the careful way his family and the medical professionals discussed options for treatment. He recommended Gail Sheehy’s book, Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos to Confidence for family members and caregivers.
There are many difficult choices as one navigates cancer and other life-threatening conditions. He recommends having conversations about everything from treatment decisions to designating who’d make decisions when you can no longer make them and even planning funeral arrangements – having open discussions that will help calm your mind.
Roger knew well that strong relationships are essential components of social and emotional learning. His relationships sustained him through 25 hospitalizations over three years. I, too, had friends and family come to chemo sessions. I built a rapport with my oncologist as he shared his family trip to India. I always shared a friendly word with the receptionist and the chemo nurses.
To heal, we can also look deep into our hearts and forgive ourselves and others. Taking the time to work on frayed relationships and letting go of resentments we carry will free us. Compassion for ourselves and others will also open us to receive compassion and find peace.
Some days, when you’re feeling terrible, your mind cannot absorb anything beyond the pain. Despite a rough last few years, Roger kept researching and writing throughout his illness. It gave him meaning.
Writing sustained me as well, giving me a reason to get up in the morning. Daily, you could find me at my computer, hammering out drafts of my two recent books for educators.
But Roger went one step further, saying, “I also have a new purpose – to help adults in the healthcare system become aware of the power of SEL! I now have a new research question that I intend to pursue with all my energy and purpose: how can SEL make a difference for those with serious illness and for those who care for and about them?”
I am not sure how far he got on this mission, but I am sure others will take on the challenge to pursue his research question.
We just celebrated the Jewish High Holidays. One of our greetings is to say, “G’mar chatimah tovah,” meaning, “May you be inscribed in the book of life.” We never know what twists and turns our lives will take or when we might fall ill.
In our 60s, we inevitably find ourselves thinking more about our mortality. Hopefully, you will not need to reference these four ideas any time soon but keep them in mind. They are healing words to the wise in sickness and in health.
Have you been through a terrible illness? What give you strength during your time of healing? Are you afraid to share your story with others, or do you prefer to be authentic no matter your condition? Please share what has helped you the most in difficult times.