Psychological Resources for people living with cancer

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For anyone living with cancer and looking for accessible, trustworthy resources, Ken Pope’s psychology resource pages are a goldmine. He provides this valuable service at no charge and always shares freely with other interested groups. Thank you, Ken – you’re a scholar and a gentleman! Your site represents the Web at its very best – well researched, helpful, relevant, and also free. The cancer support page offers full citations of 153 recent articles, chapters, and books. These include academic studies, discussions of therapy, peer counselling, self help – and more. There are also links to similar pages of related resources: 1) 12 Useful Steps if You’re Diagnosed With Cancer 2) Cancer Exercise: Prevention Recovery 3) New Resources for Breast Cancer 4) New Resources for Prostate Cancer 5) New Resources for Lung Cancer 6) New Resources for Colon Cancer 7) Resources for Caregiving 8) New Resources for End-of-Life Challenges This last page gives information about Hospice care, and creating an “At-Home Hospice” (very relevant in PE where our Hospice does not have an in-patient unit). It also discusses Living Wills and Advance Directives. Knowledge is power. The more we know, the more we can change our own lives and the world around us to offer better service and support to people diagnosed with cancer and those who care for...

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You wish you had breast cancer?

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This is Kerry Harvey, aged 24 and living with metastatic Pancreatic Cancer. In the UK this week, Pancreatic Cancer Action grabbed attention with a series of terrifying ads featuring her and others with the same diagnosis. Spokespersons from breast cancer organisations were horrified that anyone would wish for breast cancer, or compare different forms of cancer this way. Breakthrough Breast Cancer chief Chris Askew fumed, “I’ve yet to meet a man or woman with breast cancer who would consider themselves in any way fortunate to have received a diagnosis!” Reuben Turner, whose grandfather died from pancreatic cancer, comments, “…wishing you had one form of cancer over another, or cancer instead of another disease, seems to me like the last resort of the desperate. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe these people are desperate. Desperate for attention. Desperate for funds. Desperate for a cure”. Jenni Murray expressed similar anger as someone with a history of breast cancer, but also shared the process by which she came to understand and support PCA: “When I first saw the advert showing a picture of a ravaged, bald patient suffering from cancer of the pancreas, with the tagline ‘I wish I had breast cancer’, I felt an overwhelming sense of fury. ‘How could they make such a comparison?’ I thought, fuming at the Pancreatic Cancer Action charity that produced the image. ‘Does it really think breast cancer is a breeze? Just a bit of fun, swathed in pink ribbons?'” Kerry Harvey denies that it can be a breeze to have breast cancer; but still affirms that if she had to have cancer at all, she would prefer that to what she has which is “almost no hope”. This controversial statement draws attention to a crucial aspect – the illness narrative or script that follows a particular disease, shaping the way we think about it – and to some extent the way we experience it and the treatments available. The very meaning of life is represented in scripts like this, which are not made up from nothing. Instead, the stories of our lives – including stories of being diagnosed, experiencing treatment, and remission or recovery or failure – are put together like sandcastles. Variations are infinite; but all are limited by the nature of the building material we have at hand. Like any other story, illness narratives draw the listener into the world of the central characters, setting the scene. How does Breast Cancer enter the action? Often, after a routine examination followed by more specific tests…But, go back a couple of decades or somewhere with limited health services, and the setting, the main characters and the action would look very different. This critical difference...

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Is a sense of purpose good for our health?

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Perhaps it’s just about getting older, but as each year goes by, I feel less inclined to make New Year resolutions – too conscious of the many that have come in with a bang like a firework display only to fade into a whisper of smoke before the first week of January is gone. However, some interesting recent research suggests that living a more resolved and purposeful life can make a measurable difference to our health. Tom Jacobs, of Pacific Standard Magazine, reports that genetic researchers Barbara Fredrickson and Steven Cole studied the relationship between the activity of genes regulating the immune system, and forms of happiness. Though the focus of happiness is as variable as people are, the researchers identified two main forms, which they called “hedonic” and “eudaemonic”. Hedonic comes from a form of moral philosophy which holds that pleasure is the only intrinsic good in life. Eudaemonic, as readers of Plato or Philip Pullman might guess, refers to the guardian spirit or angel that guides us wisely and well; or, according to Socrates, the invisible plane in which mortals encounter the divine. Fredrickson and Cole, being geneticists, are more interested in molecular physiology than moral philosophy. However, it turns out that both are equally complicated. Participants in the research filled out a questionnaire about their feelings and self image in the past week: happy, satisfied, having a sense of direction in life, having something to contribute to society, or “challenged to grow and become a better person”. Questions about health and about depression were also included. Not surprisingly there was a strong overlap between the two types of happiness: both can flow from the same source, such as a rewarding job, a happy relationship, or being creative. Also not surprisingly, people who reported high levels of either form of happiness were less likely to have depressive symptoms. At that point the obvious turned into the unexpected, as researchers compared the genetic results. People who reported more hedonic happiness also showed higher levels of a genetic activity associated with extended stress in the immune system. This activity promotes inflammation and reduces other responses to immune challenge (such as a virus). The people reporting more eudaemonic happiness showed a ‘markedly divergent’ genetic response in comparison to their pleasure seeking comrades. Levels of unwanted genetic activity were lower; therefore their immune systems would function better and they would have less inflammation – seen as a culprit in a variety of chronic health conditions. What could be provoking this genetic stress response in pleasure seekers who lack a sense of direction or purpose? They’re enjoying life and not depressed, so why are they physiologically at odds with themselves? Jacobs speculates that...

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