A Journey on Cancer’s Path: Climbing the Mountain – Psychology Today

I have lived with cancer for 18 years, an existential experience that has changed my personal and professional life.  Along cancer’s path I have learned many life lessons about diagnosis, treatment, remission and well-being. Recently a number of close friends have been struggling with end stage cancer which has compelled me to revisit my thinking about this devastating illness from a fresh perspective. In a series of forthcoming blogs, “A Journey on Cancer’s Path,” I intend to convey insights that have emerged from ethnographic experiences in West Africa as well as personal encounters in the world of American medicine. The first blog in the series is:  “Climbing the Mountain.”


Climbing a mountain is a challenge.  For each of us the mountain looms in the distance among a patchwork of swirling dark clouds.  The wind blows down from the partially obscured summit suggesting that the path to the top may be fraught with difficulties—poor footing, steep inclines slippery rocks, broken trails, sudden downpours or precipitous drops in temperature.  There are always many unknowns.  Even so, most of us are willing and eager to risk discomfort and uncertainty as we set out on our hike up the mountain.   

From where did this will to climb originate?  Where did the will to risk uncertainty and potential danger come from? Long before we set foot on the mountain trail, we must commit to a regime of preparation.  We invest in a pair of hiking boots, we buy proper clothes, a windbreaker, and, of course, a hat.  We also prepare our bodies for the physical challenges of mountain climbing.  Perhaps we lift weights, jog or bicycle to help get us get in shape and build stamina.  By the time we actually set foot on the trail, we are ready to face the challenge, anticipating the satisfaction of hopefully making it to the top, enjoying the view, seeing the world from a new perspective.

Paul Stoller

Colorado’s Maroon Bells

Source: Paul Stoller

While not everyone has the inclination to climb an actual mountain, everyone confronts at least one existential mountain during his or her life time. The millions of people who are forced to face cancer are not unlike the hiker taking measure of his or her mountain.  A cancer diagnosis looms like an unassailable peak, the immensity of which can be overpowering.  How can we live with such a mortal challenge?  How can we walk a trail that promises stress, fatigue, pain, and hair loss—a trail that is not likely to lead us to a majestic mountaintop? Cancer’s trail often leads to remission—a respite, a way station on a path that may take to us to a sooner-than-expected death.

No matter where we live, a cancer diagnosis is the very antithesis of well-being; it is often an expectation of misery and, for some people, a painful death.  But this scenario is by no means pre-ordained.   With preparation and practice, the cancer patient can confront the challenges of serious illness like an experienced mountain hiker. On the mountain trail, the cancer patient can move forward and upward on her or his path, taking calculated risks, adapting to the unevenness of the path, and most of all appreciating the trail’s splendid views.

How can cancer patients prepare for their climb up their mountain? Although a cancer diagnosis will unalterably change a person’s life, it should not be equated with a death sentence—even in the most severe circumstances.  When coping with cancer, it is still possible to enjoy measures of well-being.

One way to successfully adapt to the multiple constraints faced when you are diagnosed with cancer is to engage in preparation and practice.  Preparation varies with your position on cancer’s path.  In the diagnostic stage when uncertainty is at its most prominent, research on potential treatment alternatives and reliance on the social support of friends, family, and colleagues is paramount.  In the treatment stage, familiarizing yourself with updated information about cancer and acquiring as much knowledge as possible about potential side effects, clinical trials, and new trends in clinical research is important.  In periods of remission, awareness of ongoing research and social support continue to be vital to maintaining a degree of control and “normalcy” in life. No matter where you find yourself on the path, regular exercise, engaging in hobbies, and continuing meaningful work can reduce the psychological stress and physical distress associated with cancer.  Just as exercise can lead to feelings of well-being in an athlete, so it can also enhance the cancer patient’s sense of well-being.

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