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Juggling Mental Health and Wellness After Cancer

Personal Perspective: You can't control the chaos. Find ways of adapting to it.

Key points

  • Loss and serious illness challenge us to live with what we want to deny or disavow.
  • It's OK to acknowledge how overwhelming cancer can be.
  • It helps to balance acceptance, awareness, and action.

Two years after prostate cancer surgery and I feel like I'm constantly juggling health demands to keep my life together. Separately, there is progress on many fronts: diet, fitness, cancer, urine control, sexual function, relationship adaptation, and mental and emotional health. But taking it altogether, it feels like just too much to hold. Deep down, I feel shaky and uncertain. Trying to ground myself feels a bit like this brief video of underwater roots:

Mish Middelmann
Shaky roots: trying to find ground
Source: Mish Middelmann

A few weeks ago, I imagined making another metaphorical video. But I am not quite up to the task, so here is the script. Please use your imagination:

Video script — Second year after prostate cancer

Long shot of man in his 60s, standing in his swimsuit on a beach. From a distance he looks fit and comfortable. As the camera zooms in, you see he is holding a clear plastic bag full of water sparkling in the sun.

Zoom closer and you can see that water is leaking out of a hole in the side of the bag. The man shifts his grip to cover that hole. But then another leak springs out the other side. There is a sound of laughter from an onlooker in the background.

He juggles his grip, but water keeps trickling out somewhere. The sunlight reflects off the wet patches on his legs from the drips that have fallen. His clutches get more awkward as leaks keep springing out of new parts of the bag. Clearly this water is important to him, and he is getting agitated as it drains to the ground.

He keeps grappling, but the bag is now half empty. Water keeps on leaking out. The sun still shines.

The dilemma of juggling health demands

Keeping it all together is like holding a bag of water with a few leaks—you plug one hole only to find it leaks out somewhere else. It's not as literal (for me at least) as simply urine leaks. But bits of my old life and desires are metaphorically leaking out. My attempts to hold it all together are looking both hopeful and forlorn at the same time. A fellow survivor has compared it to a game of Snakes and Ladders. Here's how I am juggling health demands after cancer.

It takes constant alertness to manage all the muscles to both contain urine—and let it go when it is time. Then throw in the desire to have erections again, and add in the issue of holding urine from erupting while sexually aroused. And on top of that, there is keeping cancer at bay. That includes healthy living, fitness, and exercise. Every day, every meal. And keeping positive is fundamental. For me, that includes being active out in the world and making a difference. Which, in turn, needs me to put all that urine control, health, fitness, and sexual adaptation stuff behind me and focus outwards.

Moving toward balance

So much to do! It feels like a call to action. Get a grip and try harder! But then I remember I still have to keep mindful, calm, and grounded. Probably the biggest learning experience from the cancer is that simply working harder won't save me.

Altogether, I am struggling to balance acceptance with action. It sometimes feels like the metaphorical water isn’t just inside a leaky bag. I can feel that there is enough water to rise up over my head and overwhelm me.

What I believe is that all these aspects of life and living are the water we swim in. Juggling is actually like the air that we breathe. The gift my cancer offers me, which I am sometimes able to receive, is that I can swim in this ocean of chaos and breathe in the winds of change. I can't control it all.

I can't get the balance perfect, but I can be with it. The vulnerability I feel is uncomfortable but appropriate.

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