Conquering the Win-Lose Mentality

24 Jan


There is a dreadful routine to chemotherapy. It is a predictable poison. After my first few rounds of treatment, the newness faded away to reveal an awful realness. Contrary to what I hoped, chemotherapy was not an extracurricular activity. It was a full-time job.

My life has become synced to a chemotherapy calendar. Each month means a new treatment (a 28-day cycle, which I can do from home, with doctor’s visits throughout). Instead of September, my calendar read: Round Two. (I’m currently in the middle of my sixth round).

I have become an expert at predicting when side effects and symptoms will set in. It’s a ghoulish monthly party — and the guests arrive on time: nausea, vomiting, chills, exhaustion, fever, mouth sores, pain, infections, and emergency hospitalizations.

The Clockwork of Chemotherapy

Despite the “clockwork” of this cycle (start chemo — wait for symptoms — get sick — go to the hospital), at the start of every new round I convince myself that the outcome will be different. This time, I am going to be stronger than my treatment. This time, my mind will outwit my body. This time. 

But over the course of the past eight months, not once have I “won” this secret battle with myself.

The same goes for my current round of chemotherapy. The first day of this treatment started off badly. I went to the movies with some friends. I realized the instant we pulled up to the theater that I had forgotten my anti-nausea medicine. But it was a Friday night and I hadn’t been out with friends for weeks so I decided to go anyway. Before the movie had even begun, I had already raced twice to the bathroom to vomit. I threw-up five more times, barely making it to the trash can — not to mention the end credits. My friends offered, and even insisted, to take me home, but I refused. Reeling from nausea and exhaustion, I sat through all 124 minutes of We Bought a Zoo as if my life depended on Matt Damon and his sappy-but-kind-of-charming narrative about a farm of animals.

Why? I needed to feel like I could “tough it out.” I wanted to “beat” the symptoms; to take them to war.

Toughing It Out: The Battle Language of Cancer

Where does this mentality come from?

The cancer world is awash in battle language. Like mantras, our culture repeats these war-like phrases over and over. A few weeks after my diagnosis I even saw a poster that said: Fuck Cancer. Pithy! Cancer books love to traffic in this take-no-prisoners language. They talk about cancer “warriors” engaged in a battle for health and they encourage patients to visualize chemotherapy as a sea of soldiers entering the blood stream to fight off the enemy disease. In a lot of ways, it’s an attractive line of thinking. It’s the hero’s journey mixed with the glorification of war. It’s the us-versus-them theme — except in this case it’s us-versus-us. Cancer is one’s own civil war.

My reaction to challenges has always been to fight hard for what I want. I have always prided myself as a “doer.” In this way I’m probably like a lot of my peers: I like to compete. I like to push myself. I like to win. When I started treatment, it seemed like a no-brainer: I was going to take on cancer like I’d taken on everything else before this.

But as much as I “battle,” I haven’t outwitted chemotherapy and its punitive, punctual side effects. As I write this, I am deep-in-the-bone tired, nauseated, and I haven’t left my bed in two full days. It is difficult not to equate sickness or weakness with a feeling of failure. A year and a half ago I was deciding between two job offers, while this morning I gave up on making a sandwich when I couldn’t open the jam.

Shedding the ‘Win-Lose’ Mentality

Today, as I finish the last day of this most recent round of treatment, I can officially say that I’ve “lost” once again — but I haven’t lost in the spiritual or medical sense. Instead, I’ve lost in the Manichean world of “win-lose” thinking. And I’m glad I did. I am realizing that “beating” cancer isn’t about winning or losing. I wish it were, but it just isn’t.

I’ve decided to take my new “fight” to the win-lose mentality itself. The battle I’ve been waging in the past months has been centered on fear and anger about not being able to do what I once could. In short: feeling entirely unproductive. And for someone who defines herself by doing, this can seem like a pretty bad fate.

Today, instead of pursuing the impossible defeat of mostly unavoidable side effects and symptoms, I’ve decided that my challenge will be to develop a new brand of acceptance: a strong acceptance, a muscular acceptance, but still: acceptance.

Acceptance is not supposed to be part of the lexicon of successful people. Or so we are often told. But I’ve learned that you can’t fight your way out of every problem. The solution to some challenges is not to charge full speed ahead. If this approach feels counter-intuitive, (which it often does), I try to remind myself that chemotherapy, too, is illogical on its face: you are poisoned in order to be cured.

I realize now that the experience of having cancer is more of a tricky balancing act between being proactive about your medical condition, while simultaneously accepting and surrendering yourself to the fact that — for the time being — you can’t change your reality as quickly as you’d like to. Acceptance is not giving up — far from it. But like a prisoner in handcuffs, the best way out may be patience. Trying to wriggle your way out only wastes precious energy. And it can make you go mad.

Stories of cancer warriors like Lance Armstrong make me feel both inspired and inadequate. Clad in the iconic yellow jersey, Armstong triumphed over his cancer as he raced to victory not once, but seven times, in the Tour de France. But it’s important to remember: everyone’s battle is different. Plus, not everyone looks good in yellow.

I want to thank my boyfriend, Séamus, for helping me brainstorm and type this blog post when I wasn’t well enough to do it by myself. I couldn’t do any of this — or fight any of these battles — if it weren’t for him.

Follow @suleikajaouad on Twitter and on her Facebook Page.


15 Responses to “Conquering the Win-Lose Mentality”

  1. Megan January 24, 2012 at 9:28 am #

    You are inspirational and have such a knowing outlook. Totally agreed that acceptance is a smart tact and that the battle metaphors can be really overused. Your writing is a generous gift- Keep it up! Sending prayers and strength your way 🙂

  2. Kim Hubbad January 24, 2012 at 9:31 am #

    I loved your post. I hope today is a better day.

  3. David Whittle January 24, 2012 at 9:39 am #

    Thank you again for such an amazing story. I guess i was lucky that for my chemo i was in patient and filled with so many anti-nausea drugs I did couldn’t even throw up.

    I was out walking on the weekend with a friend and told him your story, he asked more and i described how hard it was to have the anti-nausea drugs (but thank you so much for having them). The ones i had stopped your brain stem from vomiting as they were introvenious and hit that never centre. It’s an awful feeling to want to throw up but you can’t. did that far to many hours. I tried once to actually be sick at night, nurse gave me the throw up bowl and i just tried for hour after hour to actually throw up so at least my stomach would feel like it had done something. Sometime it sorta gave a little peace, but not for long.

    I’ve seen the last few posts and hoping like hell this will work. I’ve done chemo, but it worked. Then done a totally new cancer and had facial reconstrution. I just ask. Keep writing. Give the insights now.

    Its totally raw reading you material, but totally right. you have hit every key point that many of use never express.



  4. Eric Jenks January 24, 2012 at 10:06 am #

    Suleika, I don’t know if you’ve read Armstrong’s book yet (It’s not about the Bike). I have a copy kicking around somewhere if you’d like to. He talks about this same feeling during his chemo and attempting to ride a bike with friends. Don’t feel inadequate for the struggle you’re going through. You are an amazing person that inspires your friends around you.

  5. Susan Ayari January 24, 2012 at 11:44 am #

    You cannot change the past, you cannot predict the future, you only have the power to impact today. A very poor rendering of a yogic saying, however, it is, I think, the essence of your post today. Bless you, Susu! Sending you white light from Amman, Jordan.

  6. Nicolette January 24, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

    Sending you courage and patience.

  7. Kristen January 24, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

    It breaks my heart that you are having to face this. Please know that you are in my thoughts and I am sending you strength.

  8. Grace January 24, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

    Thank you so much for your writing. A dear friend of mine is starting chemo for the first time today, and your perspective is a great help to her friends who are trying to support her in her journey, and to her as well. Prayers and wishes for you.

  9. Nicolette January 24, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

  10. liz January 24, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

    I am so honored to read your words each time I get your emailed updates.
    Thank you for making the time to blog about your experiences for all of us….you have no idea how much I enjoy your writing, your wit, your sense of humor, your honesty and your courage.
    liz in dallas

  11. Clive Coogan January 24, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    Illness As Metaphor is a profound book about Susan Sontag’s journey with cancer. In it she challenges the “blame the victim” mentality behind the language society

    The year I was I enjoying my cancer treatment all my freaked out friends were rushing to see the film Titanic. When asked if I would like to see it, I replied, “I will only watch it if it is projected in reverse.”

    I recently read that it is being re-released in 3D this year. Lets get a group of “C”-Buddy’s (I hate the “survivor” moniker) together and barf away at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Perhaps there will even be some anti nausea popcorn topping at the snack bar if things get out if hand.


  12. Daniel January 24, 2012 at 7:25 pm #

    I went through something similar, though in different words. I started seeing symptoms of my lymphoma directly after creating my biggest film project to date. My passion for that project was so strong that I didn’t sleep for weeks, working out every detail by myself.

    My recurrence, 2 years later, coincided with another project (this time a website) that I was passionate about to the point of obsession.

    Now, two cancer diagnoses and 4 years later, I think it was these self-induced stresses that contributed to my illness.

    I am definitely not saying that I renounce ambition and passion! Rather, I am learning how to give myself enough space and time to achieve my goals without working myself to death. I am learning that I am not only as good, but even better when I keep my composure within my passion.

    These days, I don’t beat myself up for needing a day, or even a week off! I need those things, I am not superman.

  13. Mary Schlesinger January 24, 2012 at 8:32 pm #

    Yup. Just keel over and be in “Shavasana” pose. Be kind to yourself.

    The gold standard of fatigue for me was when I could no longer lift the remote to zap Geraldo Riviera.

  14. Katie Hooper January 25, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    This posting brought back so many memories. I so well recall the debilitating effect of chemotherapy. I yearned to feel normal, even just for a day or two, but in fact, each treatment took me farther and farther from any semblance of normalcy. I could never have even made it to a movie theatre with friends, much less tough it through a film, but then I was in my 40’s, not my 20’s. I completely sympathize with your desire to ‘beat” the treatment side-effects, but I learned very quickly, because I had no other options at the time, to let the chemo have its way with me and to find other outlets. Funny, for several months I took up handwork projects – embroidery on pillow cases was one. I wasn’t very good at it, but I needed to feel I could accomplish something. I wonder where those pillow cases are now….

  15. Jonas January 26, 2012 at 2:53 am #

    hi Susu! I started reading your blog a few days ago. Apart from the emotionnal emotivity of the subject, I find very moving the way you write about your thoughts, the easiness and apparent simplicity with which you share with us this very special part of your life.
    Despite the fact we re cousins, we have not had many occasions to get to know each other very well, and that moves me a lot to get to know you while reading this blog.
    You know, my thoughts are all the time with you.
    Keep up the good work 😉 and your natural joy, it s very refreshing and a very nice lesson of life you re giving us all!

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