In my review of endless psychological literature for my dissertation on the experience of cancer, I came across some pretty interesting studies. I am thinking in particular of a phenomenological-hermeneutic study done by Persson and Hallberg (2004), which is just a fancy way of saying they interviewed people at length- via in depth taped interviews about their experiences of cancer- and then analyzed what these people said. They interviewed 18 Leukemia or Lymphoma survivors and found 3 major differences in their stories/experiences of cancer:
1. One group seemed to evaluate their experience as strengthening.
2. A second group "accepted and adapted" to the experience
3. A third group viewed the experience with bitterness
They also reported that the third group had trouble at all three evaluation periods (they interviewed/evaluated the people at diagnosis, during treatments and at post treatment) integrating and sharing the story. These people seemed to stumble over the story, have trouble in the process of storytelling- their words were more jumbled and unprocessed. The implication is that these people hadn't "experienced" or deeply processed their experience of cancer- as much as those people in the other two groups.
This third group also reported being afraid of losing control over their feelings at times, and afraid at times that they were going mad. In other words, they attempted to distance themselves from the experience as much as possible because they weren't quite sure they could navigate the difficult feeling states.
Interestingly the first group also reported having these fears around their feelings at times- worrying they were going mad- or worrying about losing control. However this group in general was able to cope with these states. So it's not that these people in the first group were superheroes- they were afraid of their feelings too, but somehow they found a way to FEEL.
Xureb and Dunlop (2003) conducted a similar type of study and found that the people going through cancer bring with them "both the present values in their life, as well as a life long pattern of dealing with adversity in their confrontation of a life threatening illness".
Both of these studies seem to be saying that an individual's experience of cancer is colored by their CHOSEN REACTION to this trauma- and that this reaction is actually a life long pattern- a usual way of responding to adverse/traumatic events.
Jimmie Holland, the pioneer of psycho-oncology, echoes this assertion that the experience of cancer is extremely individual. She was struck over and over again by how many people she saw with the same illness, diagnosis, and the same physical symptoms, but had such striking differences in emotional reactions.
Is it possible to bring more mindfulness to this process so you don't end up in the third group- floundering- running away from the experience- running away from feelings? Is it possible to change the way one experiences things? Can Mindfulness practice help this process?