Overcoming the Shock and Fog of Cancer

A cancer diagnosis causes shock.  And you can feel like your in a fog.  But you can quickly overcome these feelings by being deliberate and proactive. 

Learning that you have cancer is a shock to the system.  It affects you mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.  There is a feeling that I describe as being in a fog.  Others have told me of having a similar feeling in the days immediately following their diagnosis.  Here’s the learning: no matter how together you may think you are, no matter how positive of an attitude you can muster, you will experience some amount of shock.  The same is true for loved ones and people who care about you.  Cancer knocks you off your center as you adjust to the new reality.

There is a funny thing that happens.  You definitely feel different than you did before the diagnosis.  How the difference manifests itself varies person to person.  For me, there was a sense of things slowing down.  At times I felt like I was observing rather than participating.  I recall a professor at Wharton talking about “sitting on your own shoulder” as a metaphor for how to be better aware of yourself and others during meetings and, especially, difficult interactions.   The metaphor captures how I often felt during those early days, which for me coincided with my travel Antarctica.

As I described in an earlier post, continuing with the planned trip was a very good thing for me.  The trip provided a great combination of quiet time and busy times full of beautiful scenery, adventure and learning.  I took time to think, reflect and write in my journal, especially during the three days at sea crossing the Drake Passage.   My daughter was not feeling particularly well during our passage.  (Did you know that the Drake Passage has some of the most turbulent seas in the world?  More on that in a later post.)  I was so sorry for her being seasick.  My sea legs and strong constitution did not fail me, and I quite enjoyed the passage.   And I used the time to clear the fog.

A particularly interesting part of my adjustment occurred during mealtimes.  While this was not a typical cruise in most respects, it did provide the opportunity to meet new people and making new acquaintances at breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Of course, with only about 125 guests on this adventure cruise, we had a chance to meet almost everyone on the boat.

Whenever I met new folks, I had this silly, awkward thought.  Should I tell them I have cancer?  Imagine if I said:  “Hi, I’m Lee Dittmar and I have cancer.”  Of course I never said any such thing.  But there is absolutely no denying that you have this new, distinct, but invisible part of who you are. It is a chapter of your life that you are just beginning. It is now part of your story, but it is still so new and your not sure who to share it with or when to share it. I reminded myself that behind every face is a story, and that each and every person on the cruise had experiences and challenges.   I set my intention on being interested rather than being interesting.  I would be deliberate in learning about my fellow travelers, and focusing much less on myself.

During what you can think of as the “shock and fog phase”, your mind will continuously filter your experiences through the still new information about having cancer.  I learned not to fight this and accepted it as part of the process.  It was impossible to not think about the fact that I had just been diagnosed with cancer.  It was too new. But I did fight off the nagging “what if” questions.  I accepted that I had cancer, but I did not accept the inevitability of negative outcome.

I made sure to exercise every day.  I had already made it a habit to exercise several times every week.  And I knew that being fit would help me deal with the side effects of whatever cancer treatments lie ahead for me.  There was a small fitness center on the boat and I was a regular there.  (Most days I was there alone.  A couple of days I overlapped with a couple of very fit guys.  One was a pilot for Southwest Airlines and the other was a pilot for Lufthansa.)  The elliptical faced a wall of glass that allowed me to look out on the vastness of the Southern Ocean, with only an occasional sea bird breaking into the picture.  (Seeing Albatrosses with huge wingspans was an awesome part of crossing the Drake Passage.)

There was a beautiful library on the boat.  It was decorated with hardwood paneling, filled with books with a decidedly adventure and documentary bias, and furnished with comfy chairs.  I made it a point to go there each day (usually first thing in the morning) to meditate, write in my journal and set my personal goals and expectations for the day.  This practice gave me a dedicated time to face any worries, fears and wacky thoughts, to remind myself of all I had to be thankful for, and to set myself up to enjoy the present.  I recommend some combination of mediation and journaling to help get the most out of every day.  I especially encourage making this a habit for anyone dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

In order to overcome the shock and fog of the cancer diagnosis, I was deliberate in focusing my mind on questions, thoughts, ideas and affirmations that were beneficial.  For example, in my “5 Minute Journal, I answered these two questions each morning:  What am I thankful for?  What would make today great?  And then I wrote down affirmations, either from inspirational writings or from my own thoughts.  Later, at the end of the day, I would answer two questions: What great things happened today?  What would made it better?  (I keep my 5 Minute Journals in the “Evernote” app. This allows me to write and read my entries on any of my devices.  There are hardcopy versions of the 5 Minute Journal that you can buy online.)

TTFN.  I leave you here with my 5 Minute Journal entries from 2/18/2017:

What am I grateful for today?  
That Krista is feeling better (seasickness)

For my positive attitude and initial response to the cancer news.

For my overall fitness and head-start in physical health as I look forward to starting treatment.

Debra’s efforts to research doctors and plan for my treatment.

Debra, Krista, Connor, Cameron

What would make today great?

Krista able to function and enjoy

Sighting some sea mammals

Maintain inner peace




The universe is conspiring to accomplish my complete healing and recovery.

The changes that are in process are for the greater good.

The power of intention is a major force in the universe, and I use intention as a lever to achieve my goals and objectives.

Every day can be a masterpiece.

I live everyday to the fullest, and look for the good in every experience.