My mom has advanced metastatic pancreatic cancer. I don’t know how to describe it better than to say it sucks. I’m usually not one for language that strong, but it’s honest and accurate. Cancer tends to have a mind of its own. Some kinds are worse than others. Pancreatic is one of the most aggressive. The chance for cure in my mother’s case is essentially zero and her life expectancy is in the months range, not years. What’s even more shocking is that she’s been otherwise healthy in her life, and no one in her extended family has had a history of cancer. I tend to waffle between two areas when dealing with this – acceptance and emotional exhaustion where it’s hard for me to have a heightened awareness of anything. As a physician, I understand the nuts and bolts of the diagnosis and prognosis. I’m therefore not in denial of it nor do I feel there’s any bargain I can make – it is what it is. Also, I personally have a belief in God and heaven. This helps me continue to move towards acceptance and avoid anger at the situation. I personally feel this life is a blip on the radar of the larger picture. I see the pain she’s in right now but have hope for what is to come for her as a believer.
What about you? What stressors do you have in your life? Maybe it’s not this drastic, but it can still stress you on a significant level. It doesn’t matter how big or small the stressor seems on the outside, but rather how it affects you directly. It could be losing a job or moving to a new house. Maybe your boss is a jerk. Maybe your teenager knows what gets you stirred up. Do you have a chronic illness? Do you have an addiction? Infertility? How about your favorite sports team’s last loss? Or did you forget to make that casserole to take to the new mother in your church? The last few may seem trivial, but, remember, it’s how it affects you rather than stressors being measured on some scale.
Here’s where I want to shift the discussion. In this article, we’re not necessarily talking about management of stress but rather I want you to have an awareness of how we tend to cope. Enter the Kübler-Ross model stage left…
The Kübler-Ross model is also known as the 5 stages of grief. These stages originated from a book that psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote in 1969 – On Death and Dying. It was based on her research with the terminally ill. Fast forward a few decades and I would say most experts in this field agree with the natural tendency of us to gravitate towards these five areas, but we don’t tend to go through all of them. We have different reactions or ways in which we cope that are individualized. Also, we tend to meander back and forth between different stages. Here they are in no certain order:
Anger. This is a natural response to a stressor. We’ve all been there at some point in life. Things don’t go the way we planned them out and we’re mad. Kids tend to go to this one often. You hear it when they stomp their feet and claim, ‘that’s not fair!’ Or maybe it’s when we’re passed up for a promotion at work. We get upset at our boss.
Denial. I’ve seen this before in medicine. For example, a cancer diagnosis. Some folks react by saying that pathology simply must not be correct and they seek a second opinion. How about when the opposing team scores in the last second of the game to go up by 1 and win the game? Ever been in denial those next few minutes?! I have!
Depression. Depression is another very realistic stage of grieving. In my mom’s cancer diagnosis above, what I feel as ‘emotional exhaustion’ really falls somewhere in the realm of depression. For me personally, it’s not full blown but rather transient. A good run/jog always helps me when I get to this point. Exercise can be a great reboot button! For you, though, it could be full blown. If so, seek out help to cope with your stressor(s).
Bargaining. Think of The Parent Trap. Those girls in the movie used bargaining to try to bring their parents back together. They thought, ‘If only we did this, then maybe they’d get back together’. Or maybe it’s that 4th line chemotherapy when the others didn’t work. Yes, there’s hope in trying something new but you have to realize the fine line. Sometimes stopping a treatment is not giving up but rather realizing the diminishing chance of success and balancing that with quality of life.
Acceptance. This is the healthiest stage of coping with any stressor in your life. No matter what stages you’re in, you need to have an awareness about getting to this stage. It’s taking a full survey of the given situation and accepting it as is. This one is tough and usually doesn’t come immediately. Give it time, though. Acceptance is a healthy way to cope with those curveballs in life.
So, what stressors do you have? Where are you in these 5 areas of coping? Having an awareness will help you manage these obstacles better in the long run. At a loss? Seek out professional help. There’s a dump truck load of good health providers out there who can help! Realize I’m not saying it won’t be tough. Life is tough at times. That’s a given. It helps to know what’s happening in our minds and bodies when those tough times come.
Dr. Thomas is a board-certified physician who operates Complete Health Integrative Wellness Clinic and Thomas Urology Clinic in Starkville, Mississippi. Is this column helpful or are you looking for more information? We’d love to hear from you.
This blog post is for informational purposes only and is, under no circumstances, intended to constitute medical advice or to create or continue a physician-patient relationship. If you have a medical emergency, you should immediately seek care from your nearest emergency room, and if you have specific health questions, you should consult your own physician.