NPR logo The Mental Challenge

The Mental Challenge

It's funny how we all seem to think — and say — the same things. A number of you wrote in over the last day or so with the same thought. You can get used to the physical part of cancer: the pain, the nausea, all of the symptoms of cancer and its treatments that beat up our bodies. When I say "get used to" I don't mean that it ever gets easy. You just learn what's coming, and how to get through it.

It's the mental part that's the toughest. That's where the beast does the most harm. You learn tricks to lessen the nausea, but how do you get past the depression, the anxiety, the fear? Those really are more painful than the toughest round of chemo. It can be almost paralyzing sometimes. Surrounded by friends and loved ones, you can feel alone. On a beautiful day, the world can look pretty dark. You want to go do something, even something simple like a short walk, but sometimes making your body take that first step is just too hard.

It's the mind that keeps us awake at night. We worry. What will happen next? Will it be painful? What will they find in my next scans? What the heck is happening inside my body? There's no easy solution, no easy way to soothe that voice in our heads.

I think the only thing we have to fight the mental demons with is will. Sheer willpower. It's easy to say, "Oh, just pick yourself up and move on." Incredibly hard to do sometimes. But in the end, that's what we do. We make our feet move, we force a smile, we push the fear and the dark thoughts out of our minds so we can focus on something else. We persevere.

The medical community is making great strides in cancer research. New drugs, new treatments that will attack the tumors and kill or at least damage them. I have no doubt that in the coming years, there will be all sorts of new things to keep the cancer cells in check. But there's really nothing that can help cage the beast in our minds. Except for us. And that's a lonely fight sometimes, but a fight that we can't walk away from.