Is there a ‘right’ response to receiving a life-challenging diagnosis? We look at the difference between fighting, resigning ourselves to, and accepting the situation.
Fight, resignation and acceptance
How we receive the news that we have a serious, even terminal illness will be individual. That’s especially good to remember if you put yourself down (or up!) for how you are taking it, compared to someone else. And also to be mindful about this when caring for someone in such a situation: how they respond may not be how we imagine we would if we were in their shoes, and their way needs to be respected.
Some of us – perhaps supported by friends and relatives – take the attitude of ‘I’m not going to let this get the better of me.’ We determine to fight our illness or dying to the last, to ‘rage against the night.’ As Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D, points out, ‘Especially when cancer is the diagnoses but in many other conditions as well, the doctor’s perspective is often similar to a general at war: the disease is the enemy to be fought, with the body of the patient the battleground.’ 
Those of us for whom having the feeling of being in charge of their life has been extremely important might respond in this manner. The various fears associated with being ill – the loss of control; being dependent; moving into unfamiliar territory, where there will be so many unknowns; the sense of not having yet experienced all we want to; our attachments to those we love and the life we have led – can also fuel our resistance.
Others of us at some point may give up our resistance and instead become resigned to what is happening. We’re conceding, reluctantly, that we are powerless to change anything: ‘I give up – I just have to go along with the situation is.’ In resignation there’s a sense of being defeated, of having no other choice than to bow to the inevitable. Understandably, then, resignation can bring in its wake sadness, anger or resentment.
Though it might look the same as resignation, acceptance is not out of helplessness but understanding; a state we grow into as we face what we acknowledge as the inevitable. Perhaps acceptance comes about as we reflect on how valuable our life has been, how much we received. We’re grateful and now, if our time is up, then we can gracefully say, ‘so be it.’
Author Stephanie Dowrick notes that when we face the events that are causing us grief, it’s not that they change ‘but the present moment does change, and so does your guiding sense of how you can relate to life. That doesn’t mean that you instantly face your future more hopefully or gaily. That may never happen. Perhaps the best that can be said is that you face life more truthfully and knowingly.’ 
In the ‘70’s Dr Jeanne Segal was part of an early research effort by the Centre for the Healing Arts. Involving cancer patients at UCLA, the research was an attempt to discover whether emotions play a role in the healing process.
She discovered three particular traits that contributed to the survivors’ recovery. The first was the ability to know what one is feeling, and the second: ‘the ability to accept and be comfortable with all the feelings you identify, no matter their intensity.’ 
The Born Fighters
According to one cancer survivor to whom we talked, a fighting reaction to a life-challenging illness can be a way of unseating apathy.
Isn’t fighting anti-acceptance? Depends. If you’re a fighter by temperament and no way are you going to take what’s happening lying down (if you’ll excuse the pun!), then accept that! If you love to do battle, accept that tendency in you, and go for it – not half-heartedly but totally. That will take you, naturally, in its own time, to a state of letting go.
Rather than a raging war, being with what is means a harmonious inner world, and such an environment – relaxed and at ease – will best support the process of healing.
Jung quotes a letter from a former patient of his whom Jung felt had undergone much change since he’d ‘become reconciled’ to himself….
‘Out of evil, much good has come to me…. I always thought that when we accepted things they overpowered us in some way or other. This turns out not to be true at all, and it is only by accepting them that one can assume an attitude towards them.
‘So now I intend to play the game of life, being receptive to whatever comes to me, good and bad, sun and shadow forever alternating, and, in this way, also accepting my own nature with its positive and negative sides. Thus everything becomes more alive to me.
‘What a fool I was! How I tried to force everything to go according to the way I thought to!’ 
Acceptance and Trust
Some authorities advise that a person must be permitted to stay with whatever feelings he has, in whatever ‘stage’ he has reached in dying; others see it is most important that they reach a state of acceptance .
From the psycho-spiritual side, according to KD Singh, ‘the transformation in consciousness has the opportunity to begin in earnest only after the stage of acceptance.’ 
At the time of the incident that is described below, at the age of just thirty-six, Swiss agricultural scientist and meditator, Chintan Vacheron, had been diagnosed with a non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He learnt that he had ‘just months’ to live.
He had been undergoing intensive chemotherapy for some months and having regular ultrasounds to check that the chemotherapy was effective in shrinking the tumour. The latest scan revealed that treatment was no longer working: the tumour had not shrunk.
One evening at home he woke, taken over by uncontrollable shivering. Admitted to the nearby hospital’s emergency room, he was seen briefly by a doctor who ordered an x-ray of his lungs. Afterwards the attendant left him, in his bed, in a dark corridor barely lit up by a blue night light. By this time the shivering was mostly gone…. [Later this was considered one of the symptoms of what was diagnosed as pneumonia]. He takes up the story….
‘Since arriving in the hospital I had been in a trusting space. I felt that I was in the right place and that this body would be well taken care of. After what seemed a long time, lying in this bed in the silence of the night I found myself becoming more and more silent, peaceful, in total acceptance of the moment, in all its unknowness. There was such a deep existential trust, far beyond anything I had known before. I rested in that space for what seemed a long time. I say “seemed” because time was of a different order then.
‘Then I witnessed this amazing event, which started unfolding in spite of me. I was suddenly aware that I was limitless. There was no boundary anymore keeping me contained in this physical form. I was just a presence…so vast. I didn’t leave my body as my mind might imagine would happen; no traveling in the room or floating above the bed. My awareness was at the same place, on that bed – it was a quality that felt so simple, ordinary yet so new, so wonderful.
‘For the past months I had been experiencing quite some discomfort living in this physical body but now all uneasiness, discomfort, even pain was gone. Not only gone, in that reality there is no physical pain or discomfort. I rested and delighted in that vastness for what seemed a long time. Then at one point I found myself coming back into this physical form. It was the oddest experience. I felt I was coming back into a body that was far too small to accommodate “me”. The image that came was trying to fit into a shoe that far too small and one needs a shoe horn to get into it. It was a difficult process. I didn’t really wanted to be embodied again because with it came back the pain, the discomfort and the uneasiness of living in this physical form, which was so affected by months of intense chemotherapy.
‘When I went back for chemo a week later everything was different. I was looking
forward for the treatment with a joy that totally surprised me. As I started the session I saw in this deadly bright red fluid flowing into my vein existence’s golden light nourishing me, healing me. There was such a trust in the moment, a deep knowing that everything was perfect as it is. In the coming days I realized that I had hardly any side effects anymore. It stayed like that till the end of chemo. Three weeks later I went for a sonography to see how the tumour was doing.
‘Walking into the radiologist practice I had a deep knowing that nothing was left. And, sure enough, the guy who did the ultrasound, was surprised to find nothing. Before the emergency admission I had a tumour that was no longer responding to treatment; after it, the tumour had disappeared. My doctor found it quite extraordinary and later used my case for a study.
‘Walking out I remember saying to myself: I knew it! – something did happen that night in the hospital. Otherwise this amazing recovery wouldn’t have been possible.’
- Close to the Bone; life-threatening illness as a soul journey Jean Shinoda Bowen, M.D. (Conari Press)
- Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love Stephanie Dowrick (Penguin)
- Raising your emotional intelligence Jeanne Segal (Holt)
- Commentary on The Golden Flower J. Jung (Book Tree)
- The Grace in Dying: a message of hope, comfort and spiritual transformation Kathleen Dowling Singh (HarperOne]