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
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
The Journey through Cancer Treatment
How Emotional Intelligence Skills Can Help
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
1. Be grateful for the family, friends—and the kindness of strangers.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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