10 Ways That Emotional Intelligence Can Help You Cope with Cancer

The skills of Emotional Intelligence can help you cope with the slings and arrows of fortune—what I call Unexpected Life Events (ULEs), which eventually come to all of us without regard for intellect, wealth, beauty, or social status. A diagnosis of cancer is certainly one of those ULEs, but Emotional Intelligence skills can prove invaluable in helping you get past the initial shock, dealing with the multitude of tests, and even handling the treatment (and side effects) with equanimity and grace.

A Personal Story

For years I’ve conducted workshops on the benefits of Emotional Intelligence for leaders, and I’ve given presentations on how to build resonant organizations through Emotional Intelligence. I’ve administered countless assessments and coached individuals to learn and enhance Emotional Intelligence skills for success and emotional well-being. I’ve created a computer-based game, Creating an Emotionally Intelligent World, for use by teams that want to better understand and build their competencies. And I’ve published articles, newsletters, and training aids that encourage people to consider Emotional Intelligence as a fantastic tool for better understanding themselves, building teams and support networks, and increasing resilience.

The theme running through all of these ideas and activities is that strong Emotional Intelligence can help you cope with everyday challenges as well as all manner of Unexpected Life Events—at work, at home, in the community and the wider world. These ULEs can appear to be either “good” (you win the lottery, you receive an award, you get an unexpected bonus) or “bad” (you are laid off, you lose a loved one, your spouse wants a divorce, you’re injured in an auto accident), but no matter what the event is, how to react and how to deal with the ULE are choices.

Then I got a real life test of what I had preached.

Cancer Diagnosis as an Unexpected Life Event
This past summer, just one day after delivering an Emotional Intelligence workshop for a group of community college leaders, I was diagnosed with cancer, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a conclusion reached after a needle biopsy of a small, painless lump in my neck. The diagnosis, delivered in a rather matter-of-fact style over the telephone by the surgeon who had done the biopsy, was indeed an Unexpected Life Event. Not only was I feeling great, but I had always considered myself to be in excellent health. I am a hiker, an avid gardener, a person who enjoys friends, family, and pets. I never smoked, am not overweight, and take good care of myself. In addition to my work as a consultant, coach, and facilitator, I volunteer to teach English to immigrants, participate on various community boards, and enjoy reading, writing, theater, and traveling. I was looking forward to doing more of these activities I enjoy in retirement.

The Journey through Cancer Treatment
Survivors, caretakers, and health professionals often refer to the “journey” of cancer treatment. From that first suspicious symptom, through the variety of treatments and side effects to the final outcome, the people on this journey need all the resources they can gather to cope with what can seem at times to be a betrayal by one’s own body. At the same time, they must find ways to navigate through the medical infrastructure and to be sensitive to the reactions of family and friends. I didn’t know what to expect at the start, but I had the sense that I would learn a lot about both my own and others’ levels of Emotional Intelligence. After the initial almost numbing shock, I felt determined to walk the path with as much grace and equanimity as I could muster. Fortunately, I had a lot of help.

How Emotional Intelligence Skills Can Help
One of the foundational building blocks of Emotional Intelligence is Awareness of the Self. What am I feeling and why? Am I aware of how others perceive me as I speak, make decisions, or take action? As soon as I hung up the phone after talking to the surgeon, I knew that I had to give myself time to feel what was happening, to take in the news that my life might be much shorter than I had hoped, that I might have to endure treatments that I had avoided thinking about, and that this diagnosis would affect other people as well.

Closely related to self-awareness is Actions of the Self, that is, the ability to plan and take action to manage feelings with intention and purpose. I didn’t know immediately what I would do to manage my emotions as I faced the mysteries of treatment, but I was certain that I was about to step into unknown territory—both emotionally, and physically.

One of my first hurdles was sharing the news with those I love—my daughter, the man with whom I share my life, other family members, and close friends. I would be learning first-hand much more about other aspects of Emotional Intelligence, Awareness of Others and Interaction with Others. How would this reminder of human mortality affect the people I depended upon and who depended upon me? How would I be able to empathize with them even as I was feeling frightened and overwhelmed myself? How might our relationships change under these shockingly new circumstances?

And finally, I thought about my own Resilience, the fifth part of the Emotional Intelligence model that I teach in my workshops. Resilience is a cloak woven of many threads, among them creativity, optimism, self actualization, and the ability to handle stress, to learn from mistakes, to find meaning, and to keep a sense of humor. I had thought about all of these abilities, and I had identified various role models over the years, but how resilient was I really?

What I’ve Learned on the Journey So Far
More than four months after the initial diagnosis, my journey through cancer treatment is not yet over, but I feel as if I’ve covered many miles and have come to a new vista—a place where I can look back to reflect on the lessons along the way. Below are ten suggestions for making the most of the journey. They are based on my experiences and observations related to my interest in Emotional Intelligence. They are a reflection on what I’ve learned about myself, about other people, and about the human condition. My hope is that some or all of these may be useful to others facing a similar Unexpected Life Event.

1. Be grateful for the family, friends—and the kindness of strangers.
No matter how strong and independent you are, you will need other people as you face your Unexpected Life Event. This means allowing yourself to be taken care of at times, and practicing and honing the skills of both Awareness of the Self and Awareness of Others. When I first told my partner of my diagnosis, he was almost literally paralyzed, although within a moment or two he had the presence of mind to ask me how I was feeling. And when I broke the news to my daughter (a thirty-something attorney living in another state), she, too, seemed frozen at first and wanted to know the medical details and what was to be done and when. Both needed time, as I did, to absorb the shock, become aware of their own feelings, and look for ways to express them. I was to learn just how important they and other family and friends were to helping me cope and remain resilient.

My partner sent out regular email updates to family and friends and handled communications from them. He took notes at every session with doctors and other healthcare professionals, spent time on the phone to coordinate schedules, and brought me Hawaiian blizzards during chemo treatments. He held me on those occasions when I just needed to cry. My daughter checked in daily by telephone but also traveled to be with me for chemotherapy and a hospital stay. She helped me in expressing feelings ranging from “this sucks” to a determined “we’ll get through this together.”

One of my sisters, who had done some research on the Internet, announced that she would be available for a bone marrow transplant if that was needed, and she traveled overnight by train to be with me. Family and friends called, visited, and offered all manner of gifts from scarves and hats to wonderful desserts and dinners as well as their good company. One friend brought knitting needles and several skeins of soft pastel wool and got me started on knitting a tiny sweater for some future grandchild. An old friend from grammar school sent a silver scallop shell as an amulet of protection.

In addition, there were many people, formerly strangers, whom I met along the way who were kind and compassionate—nurses, doctors, technicians, schedulers, and medical assistants. I learned to be grateful for each one of them—for greeting me by name, for cheering me on regarding a planned vacation, and for telling me I was beautiful without my hair (even as I was feeling miserable dealing with a painful mouth sore as a result of chemo).

2. Identify some “escape valves” to build your energy and resilience.
Even if you have great help in planning, scheduling, and organizing all the details that surround treatment, and even if you have support systems in place for transportation and daily living chores, and even if you are able to keep up with many of your normal activities, there will be times—days or nights or both—that you just need to escape from it all. Treatments for cancer, and associated procedures (bone marrow test, needle biopsy, sonogram, PET/CT scan, blood test, IV infusions, injections, oral medications) can cause discomfort—both emotionally and physically. And the side effects can be difficult to deal with too, no matter how well the medical team or your own research has prepared you. Being constipated, experiencing the buzz and the letdown after steroids, or actually having an exceedingly painful mouth sore is different than reading about any of those possibilities!

So what kind of escape am I suggesting? That all depends on what works for you—as long as it is positive and not potentially destructive. This might be an opportunity to find new enjoyment in an activity you’ve been too busy to pursue—reading, music, knitting, photography, woodworking, gardening, or viewing classic movies. Or perhaps you will find something new to take you out of yourself—bird watching, growing vegetables, scrap booking, reading about some arcane topic you’ve always meant to explore, watching an old TV series from beginning to end, taking up watercolor painting, or watching every Leonardo DiCaprio movie ever made.

My favorite escape was (and is) reading. As a lifelong reader I have sometimes pondered my bookshelves and said to myself that “if I were ever sick” I would read all of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, or perhaps re-read all of Dickens’ novels or everything written by my favorite author, Iris Murdoch. Well, I surprised myself by getting interested in George Martin’s series (five huge volumes so far), The Game of Thrones, suggested to me by my youngest sister, who happens to be a physician and is also a voracious reader. “Oh no,” I silently protested as I began the first tome. “This is full of swords and wolves and violence—why would I possibly want to spend my time with this?” More than four thousand pages later, however, I would recommend this fantasy series to anyone who enjoys the imaginative entrance and immersion in a fantastically different yet somehow believable world for long stretches of time. And I am grateful to the creative imagination of writer George Martin. During many sleepless nights, or days of low energy, I was able to forget cancer, treatments, medical procedures, and side effects for hours at a time as I lived the adventures of characters who became part of my parallel universe.

My other escape was playing online Scrabble or Words With Friends on my iPhone. I encouraged friends to sign up so I would have opponents during long hours of chemotherapy, and several people were happy to help out. If I was awake in the wee hours of the morning, I could pick up my Kindle to read or pick up my phone to plan my game strategy—ah, technology!

3. Become more observant, curious, and empathetic.
Being ill with a life-threatening illness is in itself a bit like inhabiting an alternative world. Everything looks a bit different than normal, and you are looking at everything with new eyes. This sense of being slightly off kilter provides you with an opportunity to slow down a bit and closely observe yourself, events, and people who inhabit the new spaces you walk into.

As part of my Emotional Intelligence workshops, I encourage people to replace, or at least supplement, anger with curiosity. Being curious about why someone has behaved in a certain way can be calming for you, and it can even increase your ability to empathize. Empathy allows us to share others’ lives, thus adding richness to our own. It also opens the door to compassion, for taking action to help others in need. Being aware of others’ feelings, and being able to empathize with them is a necessary step in building satisfying and productive relationships and building teams and support networks.

I wasn’t totally unfamiliar with the world of medicine when I received my diagnosis. I had been married to a physician for many years, my sister is a doc, and I’ve participated as a regular healthcare consumer over the years. But my odyssey through cancer treatment would make me much more familiar with the intricate, often complicated, workings of the medical system. I decided that it would be a great distraction to carefully observe the signs of Emotional Intelligence in each person who was part of the healthcare bureaucracy. How self-aware were they? How well did they manage their own emotions? How aware were they of others’ feelings, and how well were they able to relate to other healthcare personnel and to patients? How did they maintain their own sense of resilience? I wasn’t interested in judging anyone but simply observing both the people I encountered and my own reactions to them.

I began keeping a journal about the people I met whether in the hospital pre-op room, the oncologist’s office, the imaging center where I had a CT/PET scan, and a variety of other offices or facilities that were part of my journey. I made note of the Emotional Intelligence skills embodied in the people who were fulfilling the tasks of their jobs from front desk receptionists and medical assistants to social workers and surgeons. At the same time, I tried to be especially conscious—self-aware—about my own behaviors as I interacted with people. Some spoke to me on the telephone, some spoke to me from behind a desk or counter while consulting a computer, some pricked my fingers to get blood samples, some escorted me to changing rooms and then to other rooms for various procedures, some sat next to me to patiently explain the course of treatment, some inserted IV lines and monitored the slow drip of toxic but life-saving drugs into my body.

My curiosity became a fascination with and increased respect for how these many healthcare personnel were able to meet the challenge of dealing with emotions—both their own and of patients– on a daily basis. Some of those who cared for me actually reached out to touch me, ever so slightly, and I was surprised to learn that even if that brief touch on the shoulder was something they had been trained to do, it had a truly positive effect on me—it made me feel reassured, trusting, and cared for. I learned, too, that my own behavior and attitude could influence their behaviors. Sometimes, for example, I asked for someone’s name and got them talking about their education and training. When I treated them as individuals, they could see me as an individual as well.

4. Be open to “enough” knowledge and information.
The broad and varied menu of information options now available to us on the Internet can be both a blessing and a curse. Even a cursory search turns up hundreds if not thousands of documents ranging from medical details to personal stories and blogs about cancer, treatment, and survivors. I quickly learned that managing my emotions was a necessary part of my “intellectual” search for knowledge. Knowing what was happening inside my body was helpful; trying to evaluate survival rates of various kinds of cancer (and my particular variety) was not. Reading about treatments helped prepare me for what I would go through; reading about possible recurrence was only worrisome. I learned that I didn’t need to know every detail about various side effects. It was enough to know that medical writers and bloggers had written plenty of information that I could access when I needed to know more.

The nurse practitioner in my oncologist’s office was my first-line source of information, which she provided both verbally and in written form. She was careful to take cues from me regarding how much I wanted to know about a given subject. For example, one of the treatments planned for me was an IV drip of a “biological” (as opposed to “chemical”) agent, which would attach itself to the outside of certain cells to destroy them. She drew me pictures of what would be happening as she explained the treatment, possible side effects, and the purpose. It also fell to this health professional to tell me that I would experience hair loss with chemotherapy—which might seem insignificant in comparison to the diagnosis but was a shocking idea to me anyway.

At some point in a conversation with the nurse practitioner, I tried to put myself in her shoes. What would it be like to have to tell patients the unpleasant and even devastating details of their illness, their treatment, and what they could expect? As far as I was concerned, this young woman had mastered the skill of empathy, a major skill of emotional intelligence, and one that was even more helpful and valuable than the information that she communicated so clearly.

5. Maintain “normal” activities and relationships amidst the chaos.
It may be frightening for some people to hear your diagnosis or to hear about your treatments, but some will be there with empathy and practical help. Some will offer advice gained from people they know who had cancer or from their own reading. Some will check in often to keep you from feeling alone. Some will prepare dinner but not stay to talk. Some may feel it best to leave you in peace as you deal with the medical details. Some will sit with you for hours to help ease your way on the journey. This is where you can increase your skills in Awareness of the Self and Awareness of Others to sense how each person is able to absorb the information about what you are facing and being sensitive to the way in which they try to be helpful.

As long as you have at least one or two close people who really know what you are feeling, you may find that maintaining some semblance of both optimism and a sense of normality in your activities and relationships to be helpful on your journey. It’s a kind of “just whistle a happy tune” sort of optimism—projecting it helps you actually feel it! My partner let people know that I welcomed and appreciated their calls, emails, and visits, and I was pleased with each and any effort people made to be in touch and let me know they were thinking about me. I was delighted to answer communications when I felt well enough and to write heart-felt thank you notes.

Although I wasn’t shy about talking about medical treatments, I tried to sense how much any one person wanted to know. As I made my observations, I saw that people could surprise themselves or me with their strengths and skills. My daughter, who has always been deathly afraid of needles, found the strength to accompany me to chemotherapy, wisely looking away when an IV line was inserted or when blood was taken for testing. Soon after my partner buzzed my hair off, a friend urged me to do without a scarf while she was visiting, and she helped me feel that I need not be afraid to see myself with a bald head. In other situations, I sensed that it would be too shocking and distracting to show up without a wig or head covering.

For the most part, people want to be supportive, and I felt so grateful for whatever level of support they were willing to offer. I learned to embrace the gifts that were offered and to stay engaged with family and friends.

6. Enjoy the outdoors and the multitude of natural gifts.
Seeking and enjoying activities that bring you pleasure can increase your levels of happiness, optimism, and resilience. All kinds of activities can be helpful—cooking, photography, woodworking, exercising. When faced with the challenge of any Unexpected Life Event, you may find that doing something outdoors adds great value to your emotional well-being. Even a short walk outdoors—preferably in a beautiful place, but somewhere in the open air—can brighten your mood and take the focus away from a narrow world of worry and pain. Weeding a garden, pruning a tree, or just taking a walk in the park can do wonders to help the flow of energy in both body and mind.

As I write, it is fall, and I’m watching bright yellow leaves drift down from the old maple in my backyard. In a very slight breeze, some of the leaves twist and turn in a downward path while others glide sideways on their way down to join the colorful heap on the ground. This is not a new sight for me. I’ve lived through many beautiful autumns on both the East and West Coasts, but the magic and healing powers of such beauty are amazing and never seem to wear thin. I also happen to live near the Puget Sound, so a short walk along the waterfront offers the sight of kingfishers, bald eagles, and a wide variety of migrating seabirds. I experience all of this as a part of the healing process, experiencing myself as a tiny iota but intricately connected to the mysteries of the natural world. There is something a bit unfathomable but very comforting in this feeling.

7. Get involved in a project.
Tap your own creativity to build resilience. The main idea here is to get out of yourself, to engage in an activity—alone or with others—that makes you feel alive, purposeful, and challenged. What can you identify in your environment that can become a project that you can get involved in and that will have a satisfying outcome? You might be part of a community project—planting and taking care of a pea patch, for example, or you might decide that the time is right to organize or digitize all those old family photos.

At almost the same time that I was about to begin chemotherapy, we were involved in an overhaul of our home septic system including thousand-pound concrete tanks being swung over the house by a crane to be settled into deep holes that had been dug in our backyard. In the aftermath of that process, my partner and I decided to repair the backyard by taking out the remaining lawn and building several small, connected decks. I used graph paper to draw out our vision, and we used string and stakes to help us imagine what it might all look like. We priced lumber, watched DIY videos, and went to the lumber yard to choose all the cedar boards that would eventually become our deck. My partner did the engineering and the actual building, but I had enough energy between chemotherapy sessions to drill in all the screws on the deck planks and to stain all the wood for a beautiful glowing finish.

The project was time consuming and sometimes frustrating, but it took our minds off the chemo treatments, which occurred at three-week intervals. As we made progress on the project, we talked about sitting on the deck with friends when treatments would be finished. I am happy to say that we did just that with great rejoicing.

8. Plan a reward—a light at the end of the tunnel.
If you are the kind of person who did your algebra homework before making a phone call to friends, or ate your green vegetables to ensure dessert, you know what I’m talking about! Setting up a “reward” can help us get through the more unpleasant or downright nasty experiences of our lives. People run marathons, sail solo around the world, and spend years writing dissertations that only three people will read–all with some kind of reward in mind. The reward doesn’t have to be understandable to anyone else, it only has to be meaningful to you. Your own resilience—your ability to cope with difficulties and even learn from them—may be enhanced by consciously adding some personal reward to look forward to when challenged by an Unexpected Life Event.

Before my diagnosis and despite the downturn in the economy and our own resulting financial situation, I had pushed for my partner and me to take a long-hoped-for trip to Italy to mark our landmark birthdays of this past year. We devised ways to keep costs down and started planning, buying our airplane tickets in March, and researching apartments for rent in the cities we wanted to visit. Then came the diagnosis of cancer, only three months before our planned adventure. My partner asked my oncologist at one of the early meetings with her whether we could travel as planned in the fall. This oncologist knew the benefit of a reward, a light at the end of the tunnel. She not only encouraged us to keep to our plan, but she promised to work treatments around it. I would go to Europe without my hair and just a couple weeks out of my last chemotherapy session, but the doctor made sure I had a small arsenal of medicines to combat any medical problem that might come up.

We did it—we spent three wonderful weeks that included living in an elegant old home out on the Lido (a short ride by vaparetto from Venice), hiking among the centuries old fishing villages of the Cinque Terre on the Mediterranean, and sampling pastries, wine, and pasta in Florence and several medieval hill towns of Tuscany. We cherished every moment of our reward and are grateful to the oncologist for keeping our plan—and our emotional well-being– in mind as she developed a treatment strategy.

9. Seize the opportunity to gain perspective.
Suffering, of course, comes to us all in small everyday events as well as significant Unexpected Life Events. According to the teachings of Buddhism, existence is suffering. But we humans are, after all, a surprisingly resilient species, and one of the major lessons to be learned from survivors of all kinds of horrors is that they have gained a new perspective on life—perhaps a sense of appreciation, or gratitude, or beauty. For some it is a realization of the brevity of life combined with a heightened sense of what is most important. Even when we are not facing a difficult ULE, we hear admonitions all around us to slow down and smell the roses, to live in the present moment, to live one day at a time. A personal experience with an Unexpected Life Event, however, breathes life into the well-worn clichés.

When I learned that I had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, I had the sense that the world stood still for a moment, and that a door had opened to an alien land of howling winds, ashes, and sorrow. At the same time, there was something terribly familiar in what I felt. I suddenly realized—of course, I had indeed felt the opening of that door before, and I had walked through it when I lost my son thirteen years ago when he drowned in the Kaweah River of Sequoia National Park in California. I remember waking up the morning after I had learned of his death, looking outside and thinking, “The world is still so beautiful!” I have suffered and I have cried as any parent who loses a beloved child, but I will never look at my life or anyone’s life in quite the same way again. For whatever time I do have left on this beautiful earth, I know I will cherish my loved ones and other beings beyond everything else.

10. Write, meditate, pray.
Taking time to be alone, to feel, think, and become more self-aware is at least as important when you face an Unexpected Life Event as it is in “normal” times. Whether your personality falls into the extrovert or introvert category, you will benefit from a regular appointment with yourself. All of the learnable skills of Emotional Intelligence are built on Awareness of Self. Although other people will sometimes give you lessons, whether you are ready for them or not, about how you are being perceived, you can learn a great deal by opening yourself to be honest with yourself—or with something greater than you, if that is your belief.

I will not presume to give anyone specific advice about how to go about these activities. You might have found a way to do this in a house of worship, communing with nature, or participating in a yoga class. I can only say that for me keeping a journal has always been helpful for trying to understand my own behavior, patterns, needs, and actions—and my interactions with others. Soon after being diagnosed, I started a separate journal, “Hello Darkness My Old Friend” because I felt that what I was experiencing was beyond the realm of everyday journaling. It is a place where I can record confusion, anger, sadness and pain but also moments of joy and gratitude and hope.

Emotional Intelligence Skills Can Help You Cope
The skills of Emotional Intelligence, which can be taught and learned, can be a great resource when a ULE occurs in your life. Strong Emotional Intelligence will not make a ULE disappear, but well-developed skills can not only help you cope but can enhance the quality and richness of your life.

2 thoughts on “10 Ways That Emotional Intelligence Can Help You Cope with Cancer

  1. Rachel Carey DeBusk

    Thank you so much for this. I know I will draw on it over and over in the days and months to come as Elea and I help our father along the journey. It’s a real gift.

    • Thank you Rachel. May you have peace and well-being as your accompany your dad on his journey. I’ll be thinking about you and Elea and your dad too.

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