An experiment in seeing

Respecting the wishes of the terminally ill.

Two years ago I lost a close friend to cancer.  Eric had a multiple myeloma. At the time of diagnosis he was told that, if he managed to live a relatively healthy, stress-free life, he might have more time:  say, seven to eight years instead of four to five.  He was cautioned that few, if any, patients with his diagnosis survived past the ten-year mark.  When Eric died, it was nearly 15 years post-diagnosis. 

With CanTeen’s National Bandana Day today, it seems timely to ask questions about attitude and survival when cancer is involved.

Attitude is not just about survival  
There is intense debate about whether a positive attitude prolongs survival in cancer patients.  A number of robust studies show that it does not but equally valid investigations claim that it does. Suffice it to say that both sides agree that, regardless of remaining quantity of life, quality of life is enhanced if seriously ill patients are able to do things for themselves which genuinely achieve a measure of peace, acceptance, or other positivity (with the caveat that when the requirement to hold a “positive attitude” is forced on people, it can easily have the opposite effect, adding to the already-heavy burden of disease).

Our big question  is not whether a cancer patient needs to get a massive dose of “happy” rather, I want to shift the focus on to you, afamily member, friend, or acquaintance of someone with cancer, and challenge you to ask yourself what your attitude is toward the cancer patient.

Psychology affirms that how others see us shapes us.  One of the key things that Eric did upon hearing his diagnosis was to decide – given the extremely low survival rates for his type of cancer – that he only wanted to share his diagnosis with those he could count on to see him as alive, and not treat him like he was already gone. Eric’s wishes – to continue seeing him as alive, even though his body was, medically speaking, in the process of dying – fascinated me.

Eric hadn’t studied a massive amount of psychology, but he might just have hit on something intuitively.  Experts of non-verbal communication tell us that only about 7% of our communication is verbal with the other 93% is at a very subtle level.  Many studies attest to the unspoken communication that occurs between human beings who are attuned to one another.  And there are whole schools of psychology dedicated to achieving positive results through unconditional optimistic regard of the client:  a regard which goes well beyond what is actually said to the client.  In short, we human beings are radar machines, sending and receiving communication on many levels of being – more so than we are even conscious of.

But therein lies the rub.  If we face the grim reality of someone with a terminal illness, how easy is it to avoid starting to see the person as, well, dying -- or even dead? 

An experiment in seeing
If you are wondering what individual contribution you may be able to make to National Bandana Day, you can wear a bandana on to show solidarity with those wrestling with this awful disease, you can donate to Canteen, or host a tea party. But here is an idea that may go a little deeper.  The next time you are with someone who has cancer, try this experiment. 

1. First notice the person’s physical self. This may or may not be different because of the cancer or treatments.  The person may or may not look well; they may be frail, bald, or pale; they may have lost weight.  

2.After you have taken in this aspect for several minutes, see if you can switch to the level of their emotions; what feelings are they expressing or can you observe?  They may be sad, angry, fatigued, frightened, depressed, or relatively serene and upbeat.

3. When you have tuned into emotions, try and understand what is going on in their mind.  What thoughts are they expressing?  What thoughts are not being expressed, but seem somehow present with you in the room?  What sense does their mental level of being tell you about them?

4. Now for the hardest of all.  Let go of all these levels.  Challenge yourself to tune into the essence of the person:  beyond body, feelings, mind.  If you are unsure about the existence of this level, you can ask yourself, “Who or what chooses what thoughts this person thinks?”  Clearly, the essence is beyond even the mind.  What do you pick up when you think about them as a centre of will, or perhaps consciousness?  When you are with them at essence level, can you perceive their essential aliveness?

Connecting at a level of essence may be more deeply supportive than many of the other, also worthwhile, things you could do.  And it doesn’t require much conversation, if that is hard.  Being with your person at essence is an enlivening experience beyond words.  

Dr. Meg Carbonatto

Meg completed her B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States before moving to New Zealand. In Auckland, Meg gained her counselling and psychotherapy diplomas and worked in private practice. She has written two books, the more recent one, published in 2009 and entitled Back From the Edge, is a collection of stories celebrating resilience in adversity. Meg started at the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors in 2011, where she has been happily writing counselling and psychotherapy courses.  She also sees therapy clients privately. Meg brings to all her professional activities a commitment to helping people manifest their full potential, creating lives infused with meaning and joy.

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