Facing the journey

Do you play video games? Or are you the parent or grandparent of people who do? If so, you know the main character often must overcome significant obstacles, journey to unfamiliar lands, face dangerous and frightening foes and ultimately fight a dragon (or a zombie) to win the game.

Along the way, the character discovers tools to put in his or her knapsack and may get help from angels and sprites and perhaps even animals that talk.

Sounds fanciful, right? One thing we don’t often think about is that in the real world, we are on our own quests through life. We each have unique paths, but we move toward similar goals, like love, peace, security, purpose and meaning in life.

The obstacles we face along the way may have different faces — and a diagnosis like cancer can feel like an especially ominous foe — but on our quest, we ultimately grow and discover tools and gifts we didn’t know we had.

When a cancer diagnosis is new, the journey ahead can look dark and frightening, like a trek through a wild landscape where there’s no path to follow and no signposts along the way. What helps during this time? Loving and supportive family members. Friends who have been there. Caring professionals who can help us chart the course ahead.

Some of the challenges on the journey might include:

Learning to manage uncertainty: At many points in our lives, we face an uncertain future. When we graduated from high school, when we stood at the altar, when we had our first child, we stood on the threshold of new journeys. Similarly, when we receive a new diagnosis, we can’t see the road ahead: What will this journey ask of me? How can I meet it in a way that best supports my healing?

Struggling with hope and despair: Many of us naturally waver between feeling up and feeling down. Often our emotional state is connected to how we’re feeling physically. On that emotional roller coaster, it can be hard to know what to expect or how to hold on to a hopeful outlook.

Accepting help from others: For those of us who were raised to be independent and self-sufficient, it can be a challenge to let others help when we’re going through a tough time. Especially if it doesn’t fit our idea of who we are, it can be a big task to allow someone else to cook a few meals, clean the house, or do the laundry.

Trusting that something good is unfolding: Whenever we face a challenge, it’s understandable that we might have down days or interpret setbacks in a negative way. But research has shown that making an effort to keep a hopeful attitude makes a difference for us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

As we get accustomed to being on this road, we start to discover tools that help us meet the challenges we encounter. We get better at managing our emotions. It’s easier to keep hope alive. Some helpful tools include:

Being open to possibility: One way to meet the uncertainty in our journey is to remember that good things are happening every day and good people are all around us. Uncertainty can feel either positive or negative, depending on how we look at it.

Practicing gratitude: No matter how we’re feeling, we can find things to be thankful for — thankful to our higher power, our families, our friends and ourselves. We can thank our bodies for responding to treatment; we can thank our medical team for their friendly and knowledgeable care. We can thank life for all the gifts of kindness, love and health we experience each day.

Befriending ourselves: It may seem like a tall order to befriend ourselves when we feel as though we’re battling with our bodies over an illness. But speaking encouraging words to ourselves, nurturing ourselves as we would our children, and encouraging ourselves as we heal is an important part of the process.

Envisioning health: Although setbacks and symptoms may rise up in our paths, it’s important to remember that the goal of this journey is a return to vibrant health. By taking time each day to get quiet and picture ourselves as healthy, happy and whole, we can lift our spirits, send a positive message of love and encouragement to our bodies and envision the outcome we want.

It’s easier to reach the goal if we know where we’re going. And that’s a goal that is worth the quest.

Whenever we face something new, uncertainty may be our companion. But here’s one lesson we can take from our kids’ video games: Tools appear when we need them, the path gets clearer as we go, and we are sure to find treasure along the way.

Katherine Murray serves as the chaplain and bereavement coordinator for Hancock Regional Hospital Hospice, and she facilitates groups as part of the hospital’s supportive care program. She can be reached at kmurray@hancockregional.org.