A Coaching Power Tool Created by Prasad Dandekar
(Life Coach, INDIA)
“Will I survive doctor? How long will I survive?” these are some of the common questions my cancer patients ask me in the clinic. Cancer is a dreaded diagnosis that is linked intimately with death. A common perception is that the best you can do after cancer diagnosis and treatment is to just survive. A significant proportion of patients are unable to get over the fear of cancer well after the treatment is over. The fear of recurrence of cancer controls their life and even the slightest change in health status gets them worried about relapse. Many of them change their lifestyle with diet or alternative therapies which may not be very helpful but offer them hope. Their family members are also involved in this worry and fear, leading to the compounding of the effect. All of this fear and worry leads to patients trying hard to just survive. It leads to stagnation and no growth. Their continuous fight is not to slip back and stay where they are, there is no forward movement. The treatment of cancer can be toxic is often compared with a battle or a crusade, leaving the patient not just physically but mentally also exhausted. Their minds are continuously in battle with cancer and they have neither the time nor mental energy left for growth. Although death is a certainty of our life, we as humans are most often in denial about death and wish to fight it out. Unfortunately, the battle that ensues leads to just trying to survive and not enjoy life.
Unfortunately, the doctors are also caught up in this battle and are focused only on helping their patients to survive. The family members may augment this problem by treating the patient with special care, not allowing them to resume work or do any chores. This leads to further mental paralysis that the patient may face towards growth. They are now done with the treatment, have nothing to do but to worry about the relapse and everyone around them is reminding them to be careful of their health. This is a definite obstacle to growth.
In my cancer coaching, I want to change this mindset of my clients. I want them to see that they have the potential to not just survive but to blossom.
What is surviving:
Surviving is “continuing to exist; remaining intact”. In the context of cancer, it is to ensure that cancer does not come back and the death is kept away. The obsession for surviving is so widespread that the cancer support groups or patient support programs that are run are also based on the concept of promoting “survivorship”.
Our human brains have evolved over millions of years and the more primitive part of the brain is concerned with the survival instinct. When we experience any fear, the primitive part of the brain takes over leading to stimulating all the mechanisms to either fight or flight. The person will have a sudden rush of neurochemicals and hormones such as adrenaline which will get the body ready for combat. Many cancer patients are in the continuous state of this arousal leading to an inability to focus on anything constructive or even pleasurable. Their fight for survival is precisely what is blocking them from enjoying their life.
Many of these patients are alive, but not living their life as per their full potential. They may be focussing on what they have lost rather than what they have, operating from scarcity rather than abundance. Their responses to external stimuli are based on reacting rather than responding. The locus of control also could be outside. They may credit or blame other people or their circumstances for what is happening to them. They have lost control over what is happening to them. This loss of control may further increase the feeling of stuck and paralysis. They may become even more fearful and unwilling to try anything new or different.
What is blossoming:
When we think of blossoming, we think of trees and it’s a beautiful analogy for this discussion. A tree year after year weather the harsh winter and blossoms in the spring. It may shed all its leaves in the winter and look almost dead, but come spring, small leaves will start growing and in no time the tree will blossom. The winter has given time to the tree to gather all its potential and store them for the spring. The potential to blossom is deep inside the tree, when the time is right it will emerge.
Similarly for cancer patients, their diagnosis and treatment of cancer are like the harsh winter of the struggle for survival. Once that phase of life is over, there is a potential for growth, the potential for blossoming. Just like the tree needs nourishment to blossom, the cancer patients need the right mindset to blossom. Coaching could help them to appreciate that they have all the potential inside them to blossom and move forward. This shift from a fearful, complaining, blaming person to a positive, energetic, and the blossoming person will lead to change in their relationships with people around them. Others will be more willing to help and collaborate with such blossoming individuals and will help them succeed at the tasks at hand.
Unlike the person who is just “surviving”, the blossoming person is operating from a position of abundance rather than scarcity. From a lifeless tree, they have moved to a tree in blossom full of leaves, flowers, and fruits, enjoying their success and giving joy to others. A blossoming person has appreciation and gratitude for what they have rather than complains about what they do not have. Everyone has a potential to blossom and the foundations for that are self-love, self-acceptance, and self-sufficiency.
International Coach Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “Coaching is a thought-provoking and creative partnership that inspires clients to maximize their personal and professional potential, often unlocking previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership”. Coaching has the potential to take the client beyond what they believe they are capable of achieving by exploring and making them aware of the hidden potential within them.
When a cancer patient is coming to a coach, they have already taken the first step in the direction of forwarding movement. The coach has to partner with them and help them realize the goals that they want to achieve and the path they wish to take for it. The coach will also explore what is stopping them from achieving those goals by themselves. What are the beliefs of values that may be conflicting and hindering their growth? Using skills of active listening, powerful questioning, and direct communication, the coach helps the client to explore their situation. Many of the clients may be finding this shift overwhelming and the coach will help them explore the resources they may have to help.
From a cancer coaching point of view, the following steps may help the clients to blossom.
Start with facts
Many of the fears about cancer and its impact on lives may be irrational. For example, a lady with early-stage breast cancer with a very high rate of cure may be worried about a relapse of cancer, someone else may be irrationally worried about a rare side effect of the treatment. It is helpful if the client gathers the right data from the medical professional regarding all the fears that they may have. This will help the client to become aware of their beliefs that are not serving them. The client needs to identify and accept that they are in the “survival” mode and not in the “blossom” mode. Once they realize that they are not moving forward in the current set of mind, the coach could then explore moving forward.
Coach, though using their questioning skills helps the client to set a goal which they identify as blossoming. The coach helps the client to describe that goal in detail and gives the client a clear picture of where they want to move to. Coach also questions the goal to ensure that the client has taken a goal that they can and want to achieve. Through the coaching session, the client also gains clarity about how would they know if they have their goal. It is important here for the coach to be aware of the limitations that the client is operating with. For example, a patient who is diagnosed with a terminal illness with a life span of few months needs to have goals that can be achieved in that duration. If the client is setting unachievable goals, the coach could question the intent of the client or check if they are in denial about their life span. Having a clear goal which the client identifies as a blossoming state that they want to achieve is important. This could vary widely from running a marathon to writing thank you notes to people before I pass away.
Each individual comes with unique strengths and weaknesses. Culturally we are unfortunately trained to focus on our weaknesses, and not talk about strengths. After a life-changing event such as a diagnosis of cancer, the coach could help the client to evaluate their strengths, look at what has worked for them in these tough times. The couch could also rationally look at the threats such as chances of relapse of cancer, or side effects as well as the opportunities that are available for the client. A detailed discussion based on the client’s past and current experiences will make the client aware of their inner strengths which have never been acknowledged. For example, a client may realize that their strength is resilience and they have done well for themselves through the cancer journey because of that. The coach could then question the client how they could use this very resilience to move forward in the direction of their goal.
While the patient is struggling with cancer and its therapy, the practice of gratitude can bring them a lot of peace. It is an appreciation of what the person has received from others, it could be tangible or intangible. This mindful practice helps them to identify and acknowledge the source of goodness that is outside of them. for example, they could be thankful to a friend who chose to come with them for chemotherapy, a relative who sent their favorite dish, a nurse who was gentle while giving an injection. The gratitude could be either for an individual, nature of a higher power. Gratitude is associated with a positive mindset, greater appreciation of good experiences, better health, and resilience to adversity. Gratitude is not just helpful for the client but if they choose to communicate their gratitude the other people, it leads to spreading joy and improving relationships.
Get & offer help:
Asking for help is not easy for many people. Especially for cancer patients as they may feel obliged to people who have been helping them a lot such as partners, relatives, friends, etc. It is important to identify key resources which will help the client to blossom. The client is then encouraged to seek help from these resources to reach their goal. If there is reluctance for asking help, the coach could explore the feeling behind that resistance and help them to uncover them.
The client could also offer help to others and this will help them feel a sense of pride and purposefulness. The help could be offered to their near and dear ones but also strangers, e.g. choosing to speak to other cancer patients and share how they sailed through the treatment.
Acknowledging the clients’ contribution to the goal and celebrating that will help the client to appreciate the work that they have put in. Some of the clients may feel overwhelmed by the goal and not appreciate their small wins. For example, someone who wants to lose weight may be unhappy that they have not reached their goal in time, but the coach may help them to appreciate the weight they have lost in the efforts. Celebrating small wins also brings positive emotions such as joy and gratitude to client’s focus which encourages them to move forward with greater vigor.
Cancer patients may experience many ups and downs in their health due to cancer as well as the therapy they receive. The coach could review their progress and recalibrate the goals with the client to keep them realists and adaptable to the current situation. For example, a client who wishes to lose weight they have gained during therapy may not be able to achieve goal due to some of the medications that they are taking, a client who plans to run a marathon may not be able to do so since their doctor has advised against it after recent tests. The coach helps them to reset the bar to their own definition of blossoming and helps them to move forward towards it.
The role of a cancer coach is to help their clients reach their maximum potentials despite the adversities of cancer and its treatments. Appreciation of the client’s strengths, having gratitude, clear goal setting, celebrating small wins, and recalibrating their goals will help the client to blossom.