Improving Our Self-talk Can Ease Our Journey Through Cancer

By John Leifer

The journey through cancer is never easy, but the way we choose to view it can make a big difference in our daily lives. Researchers are proving that the nature of our self-talk – those messages that seem to echo in our heads at critical moments throughout the journey – can impact our hope, resilience, pain, and perhaps even outcome.

Current research builds on the pioneering work of psychologist Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive therapy. At its very heart, cognitive therapy suggests that our thoughts and feelings are more a reflection of how we perceive a situation than what is actually happening at the moment. We fall prey to, what Beck termed cognitive distortions, which then affect our mood.

One simple example is when we catastrophize  – taking a minor or moderate threat and exaggerating it to the point where it causes great anxiety. A woman with very early stage breast cancer, whose self-talk is dominated by fears of dying from cancer is, in Beck’s lingo, catastrophizing.

Beck identified many forms of cognitive distortion that impact the way we perceive our situation and the self-talk that often follows. He reasoned that distress, such as anxiety and depression, could be reduced by looking closely at the messages we feed ourselves to see if they are realistic or distorted.

The burden of cancer is laden with distress. That’s reality. But the level of our suffering may be closely tied to our self-talk. If our daily diet of messages arises from errors in our thinking, than we may suffer more as a result. If, instead, we reframe these discouraging messages and replace them with accurate and affirming messages, our burden may be lightened.

Here are three things that you can do to improve your self-talk:

  1. When a feeling of distress overtakes us, it may prove helpful to try to identify the thought that, moments before, seemed to trigger our emotions.
  2. We can then examine that thought and ask whether objective evidence supports it or if we are exaggerating, catastrophizing, or in other ways distorting the truth.
  3. Finally, we can work to reframe our thoughts and messages in ways that are accurate and more life-affirming.

The realities of cancer can be harsh. How we choose to work through these difficult times, however, is somewhat under our control, and the first step is to examine our self-talk.

Also available by John Leifer:

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After You Hear It’s Cancer: A Guide to Navigating the Difficult Journey Ahead now available in the Cancer Care Store.