'THINK' Yourself Well

Advice from a 5-Time Cancer Survivor: Choose the Person You Will Become

+ Pamela Friedman

Five-time cancer survivor and author Donald Wilhelm is the first to admit that finding “happiness” while battling cancer is a bit difficult. However, he definitely advocates positive thinking.

“You have a choice,” he says. “You can be negative, or you can be positive, make some changes, and make the most of it. My question to people is, why would you choose negativity?”

Diagnosed in 2000 with Hodgkins 4A, Donald has gone through a long journey of cancer treatments. Total up the chemo he’s had and you’re talking over 24 month’s worth. His journey has been a series of remissions followed by recurrences, more chemo, remission, recurrence, chemo, rinse, and repeat. To say the least, it’s been grueling.

“I got to the point where I just couldn’t do it anymore,” he says. “So I took some time off, and for three years I did okay, but then the emotions caught up with me. I was partying a lot of nights, all night, and really couldn’t get ahold of what was happening. Of course, the cancer came back, and this time it was everywhere. We did almost 16 months of chemo to keep it at bay, but I was sick two weeks out of every month. I was living only half the life everyone else was. I didn’t want to live that way anymore. I wanted to enjoy life, whatever life I had. So I quit treatment, got a new oncologist, a new hospital, had my enlarged spleen removed, and set about changing my life.”

The chemo did reduce the amount of cancer in Don’s body, but didn’t completely get rid of it. So how does he manage the knowledge that it could spread at any time?

“It doesn’t bother me at all anymore,” he says. “When I first started chemo, I was scared. I didn’t know what to expect, and chemo kicked my butt. I would be sick before I even got to the hospital. But I know now that all of that is controlled by your mind, and the more you practice redirecting your thoughts, the easier it gets.”

Far from a Pollyanna, Don advocates using positive thinking as a tool to make the cancer journey easier on yourself. He now does meditation and visualization on a daily basis. “We need to take care of the physical body, with good food and exercise, but I think the mental component has far more to do with our well-being. The brain is a crazy animal. It’s amazing the power it has, and how much damage it can do if it runs unchecked.”

Sounds all well and good, but when he was going through chemo treatment after chemo treatment and recurrence after recurrence, how did he keep up the positive emotions? You may be surprised to know!

“I started by pretending!” he says. “You know, the ‘act as if’ kind of thing. Cancer patients experience a lot of pressure around other people, because of course they ask you how you’re doing. I would think to myself, ‘Do they want the simple answer or do they want the truth?’ But you know, people want to hear the simple answer. They want to hear you’re doing great. So I started faking it. It’s like smiling when you don’t feel like it. You do it for awhile, and suddenly you’re really smiling, and your whole body benefits from it.”

What techniques does he use when his thoughts start spiraling downward? “The secret I’ve found is gratefulness. When you start getting that pit in your stomach, and your thoughts snowball in the wrong direction, take five minutes and you can change that.” Don suggests focusing on the things you’re grateful for. Some days it may be that you’re still alive. Or that you still have your loved ones around you, or even something silly like you got to enjoy your favorite kind of ice cream. “It’s a process and you have to learn how to do it,” he says, “but the benefits are huge.”

Don’s future, at this point, is unknown. He says the FDA may soon approve a new treatment for his type of cancer, and if so, he’s eager to try it. In the meantime, he’s adept at living in the moment, and is excited about accomplishing his goals in whatever time he’s given. One of those goals is to help other cancer patients by sharing his experience.

“My main message is that you have a role in how this turns out,” he says. “Cancer changes you. You’re never going to be the same person you were before. It’s such an emotional climb, you really can’t see back to where you came from. But you can choose who you are, today. And you can choose who you will become, tomorrow.”

If you’d like to read a copy of Don’s book and/or his blogs about his journey, please visit his website.