Black senior man sits and knits a scarf while a monster floats behind him

Cancer, Mind Demons, & the Importance of Distractions

Cancer, it’s scary, unpredictable, and exhausting. It drains your energy all the time and makes doing anything almost impossible, physically. There’s an entire second side to cancer and chemo, though, and that’s the mental aspect – something that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. The mental battle we face when cancer comes calling is epic, and that’s why it is so important to have distractions.

Games, sports, writing, making stuffed animals that look like the characters from Friends – whatever it is that you do to kick back and relieve some of the stress of the day, that’s a distraction and important to keep up when you have cancer. Now, I know what I’m saying seems crazy – I mean, fun and games are probably just above, “return neighbor’s hedge trimmer,” and “clean out the shower drain” on your list of priorities, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important.

Draining the emotional poison

Interestingly enough, I came upon this topic because I was writing an article for about the importance of keeping up with the things you like to do in order to help with mental health. It was then I realized that if it was important to do that for RA, it was doubly important for those with cancer. Tripley important even! Tripled important? Three times as important. That’s the one, and it’s true. Making sure you have something to use to drain all that anxious emotional poison is as important as having a very large shovel if you are an elephant zookeeper. Even if you feel like doing nothing, you have to try.

I’ve been on chemo, trust me, I know how bad the exhaustion gets. Most times, you feel less motivated than a 40-year-old at a twerking contest, and twice as ridiculous when you actually do get up and start moving. I remember the voice in my head kept saying, “you have cancer, no one is going to care if you didn’t get to finish paying the bills, mopping the floor, or folding all of your comic book-themed shirts and arranging them in your closet in order of most powerful superhero to least powerful (sorry Hawkeye).” I thought myself silly for trying to do anything at all other than lying in bed and watching reruns of naked and afraid, which, coincidentally, describes two things that you are to varying degrees when you have cancer. So, that’s exactly what I did. Or, more accurately, that’s exactly what I didn’t. Do, that is. Do anything. I just sat there, molting, while I ruminated on my mortality and the mountain of “what-if’s” that was as unavoidable as red lights when you are in a hurry, just sitting there letting my mind wander.

Finally, a distraction

It went on like this for a couple of months, with the commiserating and late-night mind demons creeping up whenever I tried to sleep, and then, one day, something amazing happened. Football season started!! Ha! I bet you didn’t think I was going to say that. Out of left field? Maybe, but bear with me just a little longer. You must know I am a huge football fan. I play in several fantasy football leagues every year (and I almost always make the playoffs, soooo, yeah), I love reading about the game, and I even enjoy watching it on TV, which, if you know me, seems crazy. I’d much more likely be found watching a Fortnite or Overwatch video game match online than an NFL game on regular TV. I digress, the point is, football season started, and I finally had something big and bad (good) enough to distract me from my cancer.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that the NFL would be a large enough juggernaut to pull me out of my cancer funk, but at that point in my life, I thought I’d be sick forever. That’s how many of us feel when we are in the throes of a bad chemo reaction or cancer attack – your mind plays devil’s advocate and keeps saying, “but what if you DON’T get better?” Thankfully I dove into fantasy football and the NFL with a renewed vigor that year and it got me through some of the toughest times. Never was I more thankful that there was a game on Thursday night so I never had to go more than three days without, when normally I’d gripe that I had to spend a weeknight watching some boring last place vs last place game with zero action.

Find what works for you

The point in all of this is that I found a distraction that worked for me. Granted, it wasn’t until much later that I realized the importance of keeping my mind busy and how much football did for me, but that’s why I’m writing this – to hopefully save you the trouble. You see, cancer is going to screw with your mind, it’s more or less inevitable unless you are some sort of weird robot with anti-cancer worrying software. Even then I feel like you’d worry a little still. Why? Because cancer is THE one, the big bad, the third act twist-enemy who pretended to be your best friend the whole time, and it will take an equally as strong force to take your mind off it.

So, go, and find that thing you love so much that it can take you away for a while, metaphorically, and make sure to save some time and energy for it. After all, if anyone gives you guff for doing something you actually want to do, you can always say, “leave me alone, I have cancer.” Talk soon.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

Please read our rules before commenting.