The Incredible Hulk is the perfect visualization of a person stressed out. Let’s be honest: most of us get “green and big” once in a while. But when we’re fighting an illness, that response sometimes makes a bad situation worse.
This is particularly true for one of the most frightening illnesses out there, cancer. “Stress makes your body more hospitable to cancer,” according to Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson.
Wait a second. Is this a joke? At the moment you receive a confirmation of a cancer diagnosis your body will activate a “fight-or-flight” response due to stress. These involuntary physiological reactions are responses to something that is terrifying. A disease like cancer is indeed terrifying, either because your life is at risk, or you are afraid of suffering and making other family members suffer, or you don’t know what to expect from the treatments ahead, or you don’t have a support group around you or you don’t have the resources to access necessary treatments, and so on. When you receive a cancer diagnosis, no matter the prognosis, your life changes dramatically.
It is clear that pretending you don’t have cancer, i.e. the flight response, is not an option if you want to survive and have any chance at getting your health back. On the other hand, out there in hospitals, advertisements, magazines and articles the “fight” response is highly promoted and valued. As a 6-year cancer survivor myself, I cannot count how many times I have received the image of a woman showing her biceps, using boxing gloves, making a mad face or even the image of a female samurai-warrior with a big open mouth shouting and ready for war. There are people who have called me a “warrior” and “fighter” as a compliment. The message is clear: You have to fight!
That message makes my heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate increase as my body tenses up and gets ready to take action.
But visualizing myself roaring like the Hulk, wearing the paraphernalia of a warrior, flexing my biceps and shouting for war, drains me of all my energy.
I’m tired. I don’t want to be a fighter. I don’t want to go “against” cancer. I want to embrace it.
Embracing cancer means taking advantage of it, recognizing the stress but addressing it in a way that will be beneficial to us. Embracing cancer is being flexible and humble.
Psychologists are increasingly interested in finding different ways to address stress, especially when cancer patients are dealing with diagnosis and treatments. Often they recommend supportive therapy for the patient and/or family members, alongside with some Do-It-Yourself practices to overcome stress. It is clear that chronic stress will play against our survival prognosis. If we want healthier and more productive lives, we need to start embracing cancer instead of fighting it.
Cancer patients are using practices like conscious breathing, physical exercise, meditation, yoga, and praying, healing writing, support groups to embrace stressful situations and make the best of them.
As a wellness coach and cancer survivor, I have met cancer patients who, thanks to their diagnosis and treatments, are now eating much better, experiencing new adventures, exercising more, joining humanitarian movements, writing books, speaking at conferences, and loving their families more.
There is no way to “make your escape” when you receive a cancer diagnosis and need to start treatments, whatever treatments you decide to follow. But there are more ways to overcome stress and fear than by fighting and roaring. We are humans and we all fear. But what better example than Dr. Bruce Banner in Avengers Endgame! The bravery shown by Hulk to make the decision to “evolve” is simply outstanding. He is still green and big, but now with a superior emotional intelligence and humility that bring him to grow and progress for a greater good.
That’s what I tried to do: embrace cancer. I recognized and named the fear I felt when I was diagnosed with cancer, and decided to learn from it. I grew personally making daily choices that brought — and still bring — me closer to the physically and emotionally healthier life I want to live. In the end, hulking up was never been the answer.