Tips for survival

Here is my advice gained from personal experience:

• Assess yourself objectively.

• Get expert help to deal with your emotions.

• Involve the Higher Power in your life—call it God, Buddha, Christ, Krishna, or whatever name you relate to—and ask to be shown the areas of your life that need change.

• Avoid blame and guilt.

• Live your life—not someone else’s.

• Love yourself and be kind to yourself.

• Learn to set loving boundaries.

• Make appropriate changes when possible.

• Remember that you are a work in progress. Don’t be hard on yourself if you make some mistakes.

• Simply do the best that you can, and let God do the rest.



Cancer As a Turning Point: A Handbook for People with Cancer, Their Families, and Health Professionals
Lawrence LeShan

Setting boundaries

In the physical body, it is the job of the immune system to set boundaries. It decides what is and is not “you” and then takes care of those things that are not you that somehow got into the body. Cancer can only grow if the immune system doesn’t recognize this growth as something that should not be there, and many complementary cancer therapies are intended to activate and strengthen the immune system rather than attack cancer cells directly.

There is a great deal of research now to show how the mind-body connection influences the immune system. In Love, Medicine, and Miracles, Bernie Siegel refers to a follow-up study in the New England Journal of Medicine of fifty-seven women with early breast cancer. The study showed that “recurrence-free survival was significantly commoner among patients who reacted to cancer with denial or ‘fighting spirit’ than among patients who responded with stoic acceptance or feelings of helplessness or hopelessness.” Lower survival rates from cancer are associated with depression or helplessness, and higher rates are associated with a sense of coping. The personality traits of a sense of meaning and purpose in life, a sense of personal responsibility for one’s health, an ability to express one’s needs and emotions, and a sense of humor are all ones that can enhance survival. Conversely, “compliance, conformity, self-sacrifice, denial of hostility or anger, and non-expression of emotion” seem to be related to an unfavorable prognosis in cancer patients and may possibly relate to susceptibility to cancer as well.[1]

What we learn from these studies is that people who have a strong sense of self—who know what they want and go for it—have better outcomes. As I was reading about these patterns and at the same time working on strengthening my immune system to deal with the cancer, I realized that there were clear parallels and that one way of looking at the profile of patients who do well is that they have healthy immune systems on mental and emotional levels.

The mental immune system

What would a healthy “mental immune system” look like?

As it is with the physical, it is knowing what is you and what is not you. It is knowing what your thoughts are versus what is seeking to enter your mind from the outside. One source of these outside influences is the media, which constantly bombards us, telling us what we should think about every issue or topic. It constantly tries to shape how we think about the world and about ourselves.

What do we think about ourselves? Do we allow the condemnation of the world to enter: the messages that we are too fat, not pretty enough, not intelligent enough? Do we accept thoughts of depression and gloom? We can internalize all of this negativity if we are too passive and take things in without discrimination.

We must also be mindful of the messages we internalize from friends, family, and coworkers. The things we internalize in childhood go especially deep; they can become an integral part of who we are and how we see ourselves. Our task is to separate ourselves from others’ concepts of us. Although it may be painful, this process can be tremendously liberating and a key to finding out who we really are and what our purpose in life is.

The emotional immune system

What about the “emotional immune system”?

How am I to know what is “me” (my wants and desires) and what is “not me” (what everybody else wants me to do)?

As I thought about this, I realized that I put a lot of energy into doing what other people wanted me to do—or what I thought they wanted me to do. Sometimes I was so concerned with making other people happy that I no longer even really knew what I wanted to do.

Many of the exercises in Dr. LeShan’s book Cancer as a Turning Point are designed to help you get back in touch with your inner desires. Your soul has come to earth with a mission to fulfill. This sense of mission and purpose can get buried under the desires of friends, family, and loved ones. How many people do we see who become doctors or lawyers because their parents wanted them to? Then they get to middle age and experience the classic mid-life crisis, realizing that they have taken a detour from their soul’s route.

Sometimes the crisis is brought on by illness such as breast cancer. I know that as soon as I heard the diagnosis, everything shifted. Suddenly I knew that I had to do what was most important to me, and I could no longer keep doing things simply because other people expected or wanted me to do them.

This was not an easy task—sometimes the inner desires of the soul get so deeply buried that it is hard to even find them again. However, my therapist and others helped me to get in touch again with my “real self.”

A mental and emotional diet

As well as learning to set boundaries mentally and emotionally, I also had to think about my mental and emotional diet. We are learning more and more about what to feed our body. But what do we feed our mind?

It has been said, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Our thoughts are things, and they have a profound effect on our body, mind, and soul. As we observe the mind, we soon realize that what we take in as food for the mind makes a difference. The kinds of programs we watch on television, the kinds of conversations we have, the books we read, the movies we see, the places we go—all of these things that we take in affect our thoughts. Some of these effects happen very quickly and can be easily recorded in medical tests. Some of them can have long-term effects as they shape our thought processes and our overall outlook on life.

While I was sick, I learned to be more and more selective. I became careful of the things I put into my mind, for I often found them surfacing in the middle of the night. I deliberately sought out uplifting movies, books, and magazines. I spent time in nature and with uplifting friends, and I chose my friends carefully. I worked on forgiveness so that I would have no additional baggage to carry around. I also worked on freeing my thoughts from criticism of myself and others. It is so easy to judge and condemn others, and often we are most critical of ourselves.

Necessary changes

Although I am essentially the same “nice Neroli,” there is a big difference in my post-breast-cancer personality. I don’t automatically do what other people want when their wishes conflict with my own. I no longer have such an aversion to saying no when I think it is the right thing to do. I am more willing to speak my mind when it is appropriate and I am generally less passive.

I am still devoted to service and helping others, but I can set better boundaries now and consciously decide whether or not I will involve myself in a particular situation. If I do, it is my choice and not another’s. Although I still like to work hard at a job that I love, I am more able to take time for myself.

I have found as a consequence that I am not so universally liked—sometimes when I say no, people get upset. But that is a part of the price that I pay to be true to myself and follow my heart. It is worth it to me.

What I am saying here is true for me, yet I know it may not be true for everyone. I have known many breast-cancer patients who fit this profile—and also a number who do not. Nevertheless, I believe that if you have breast cancer, or any form of cancer, and you want to look into this area of your life, it can pay big dividends. However, it has to be your own “want” and not something that is forced upon you by others. (After all, if you’re working on your psychology merely because someone else thinks you should, you are still living someone else’s life and not your own.)

In general, I believe that it is better that the patient discovers these things herself. If her soul wants to know, she will ask the questions and seek the answers. I looked at these things because I had a burning drive to do so. For others, it may be of no interest at all. And that’s fine too.

Bernie Siegel says, “Everyone can be an exceptional patient, and the best time to start is before getting sick. Many people don’t make full use of their life force until a near-fatal illness goads them into a ‘change of mind.’ But it doesn’t have to be a last-minute awakening. The mind’s power is available to us all the time, and it has more room to maneuver before disaster threatens. This process doesn’t require allegiance to any particular religious belief or psychological system.”


1. Bernie S. Siegel, Peace, Love and Healing: Bodymind Communication & the Path to Self-Healing: An Exploration (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), pp. 27, 28, 162; Bernie Siegel, Love, Medicine, and Miracles, p. 4.


Excerpted from A Journey through Cancer, by Neroli Duffy