Willpower vs survival instinct in cancer

Is willpower enough to endure the harrowing rounds of chemotherapy with all its side effects? That is a question that weighed on me a lot while I was witnessing my dad fighting his cancer. He had always had a strong will and was very stubborn, and I truly believed that those were strong qualities that were sure to come in handy during his three year-long battle with what slowly became a very aggressive cancer

Metastatic colon cancer

He had metastatic colon cancer, stage IV, when he was diagnosed. Even though, it is considered an advanced stage, nobody told us that his situation was dire or that it was hopeless. Doctors still treated him as if there was still a possibility that he could survive his cancer. We never asked the hard questions, perhaps in part because my father was always present when we talked with his oncologist, but also because we were and wanted to remain “cancer naïve”.

It was that naïveté that kept our optimism going. It blocked our fears from turning into paralyzing emotions and our life from crumbling down. It was especially critical to my father’s treatment adherence, because many times he had objections to certain aspects of the treatment, particularly when it was making him sicker than the cancer itself.

Cancer treatment

He stuck to it all. He never missed a chemotherapy; waking up at 6am, because he did not want to be late, and waiting for long hours for the drug to be ready -sometimes as long as 4 hours. He underwent radiotherapy, which involved 5 days of high radiation doses to shrink the principal tumor. He took his medication religiously and followed through all his appointments, but most important of all, he continued living his life.

It may not be obvious to someone who has never experienced cancer, but all those efforts required a strong willpower. Some would call it the survival instinct, but  I don’t agree because it is not easy waking up in the morning knowing that something is growing inside you and for which you can never get the certainty of a cure. Cancer had good days and bad days which were both unpredictable and meaningless. Good days did not imply that he was cured, and bad days did not announce imminent death.

The limits of willpower

Unfortunately, willpower has its limits, especially against this giant monster that cancer is, and it started to show in my dad’s behavior. He developed unhealthy eating habits that made him sick on multiple occasions, and he also refused any non-medical treatments and treatments other than chemotherapy. As a result, he never received holistic treatments that could have been beneficial for him such as acupuncture and rejected psychological support and pain management care.

Towards the end of his life, it was clear to us that his willpower had crumbled and was replaced with panic and anxiety. In his state of panic he was reverting to behaviors that were not beneficial to his health and even harmful to him. After he died, I was convinced that were it not for the fact that it had engulfed his willpower, cancer would not have been able to claim his life.

I love you daddy and I miss you so much


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