Cancer and Aging: The Connection Between Two Life-Changing Events

June 15, 2016

According to mystical thought, the world we live in is the result of shattering. The myth goes that the world was created to hold the divine light, but the vessels holding the light were too fragile, the light was too strong, and the world shattered. We live among the shards, the pieces that scattered everywhere, and in each one, there is a little spark of that light.

Dayle Friedman tells this story, a shortened version of the myth, to illustrate how we all can draw positives from the things that most threaten our personal worlds. A cancer diagnosis can do that in a single moment. Aging is different. We experience that over years or decades with changes and losses that can either be immediate or gradual, life altering or cumulative. '

"It's hard to go through cancer without experiencing some shattering," Friedman says. "When you get that diagnosis, something you hold dear is going to shatter. It's an inflection point. The question is how do you react? How do we sweep up the pieces and what do you with them? Can you find the resiliency to discover the hidden light?"

How are cancer and aging similar? "That's a very interesting question," says Dr. Holland, "one I didn't recognize until I thought about how character strengths support people throughout their lives and challenges. By the time you are 70, you have faced a lot adverse events in your life, and you have developed ways of handling them. That's what I call character strength. Cancer, in many ways, accelerates this process. It causes us to call up those inner strengths."

Dr. Holland is a strong advocate of positive psychology which stresses moving away from a focus on pathology and illness to one on finding those inner strengths.

"In adversity, we can discover parts of ourselves that we didn't know we have," she says. "We are all a little better and stronger than we thought."

Facing cancer and aging present another challenge--the loss of independence and control over our lives. That can be measured in actual physical losses or the emotional impact of becoming a patient or becoming increasingly more dependent on others.

"Both aging and cancer shatter our personal myths of self-reliance," says Dayle Friedman. "In our society we tend to idealize independence, but the truth is we are never truly either fully independent or dependent. We are interdependent. Cancer and aging bring that to the forefront."

Friedman teaches the people she works with how to be a care recipient. "There can be great grace in being cared for as much as in delivering care. You can contribute so much to the people you interact with on a daily basis. So much of what we give and receive in life isn't physical. You can give interest, curiosity and compassion. People who need help can give as well but it is hard for anyone who has identified themselves as autonomous and empowered."

Do cancer and aging open doors to discovering new parts of ourselves? Both Holland and Friedman agree that they can, and often do. "We are very much who we are," says Friedman, "and that is often more true as we age. Both cancer and aging can cause a crisis of identity, a time when the things that we are become invisible. It is possible though to see cancer as a call to transform ourselves, to go beyond our previous limitation, to ask 'who am I now that I'm not who I used to be."

Jimmie Holland says she worries most about people who face cancer and aging alone. "Social support is really the key. Isolation and loneliness can be big factors in determining how people deal with the challenges they face, and even in mortality. Relationships are terribly important."

She also points to research in a variety of fields that supports the premise that people over the age of 60 often have an improved overall sense of well-being compared to younger ages. "It may be that at 60 you begin to realize you are mortal, and you think about what is important. A cancer diagnosis can have that same effect. You perceive life differently, learn to live in the now. You can start putting together experience and knowledge in a world view that is more mature. That's how we find meaning."