By Christopher Cudworth
A year ago on March 26, 2013, my wife died after 8 years of treatment for ovarian cancer. Notice that I do not mention the word “battle” or “fight” or “struggle” in the context of my wife’s death. We worked through everything that happened together. We had many blessings occur along with the difficulties of trying to overcome a disease that overwhelms the treatments for too many people.
There were many difficult times during those 8 years. My wife and I adopted the phrase “It Is What It Is” to describe both the highs and the lows of dealing with each phase of diagnosis and treatment. That phrase, along with the words “A Journey Through Cancer and Caregiving” is the title of a book I’ve written about the experience. I’m working with an agent and will be seeking publishers. In the prologue to the book, I used these words to describe her efforts to survive cancer.
The fact that Linda Cudworth lived 8 years essentially beat the odds. I am really proud of her and grateful for that. She worked hard at it. Another admirable quality is that she also relaxed well when given the opportunity. We lived a lot of great life together as a result of her determination not to let the disease entirely control her existence after diagnosis. If you retain any message from these words, it is this: Cancer may affect you, but it does not need to define you.
The challenge for any caregiver in the situation I shared is to keep your own mind and life together as you work with your partner through countless chemotherapy treatments, surgeries and side effects. The sense of loss through all of this is palpable at all moments. It might be easy to slide into a “woe is me” mode. We never did that.
It’s an unfortunate fact. People see fear, loathe weakness and seldom have the time or concern in business to accommodate those compromised by health concerns. It’s an ugly truth with bold and rare exceptions. Kudos to those who do understand.
If you are predisposed to anxiety as a condition, as I have been all my life (a ‘nail biter’ from an early age…) then coming to grips with how anxiety affects you is vitally important.
Anxiety can undermine your ability to work, to sustain positive relationships and even to breathe correctly. Here is what Daniel Smith wrote in his book Monkey Mind (Simon&Schuster) about the challenges of living with anxiety: “Anxious people breathe too quickly, and from the upper parts of their lungs, increasing the heart rate and throwing off pH balance and resulting in all sorts of unpleasant physiological changes. Learning to breathe more slowly and more deeply is sound advice.”
Except that breathing better may actually involve breathing faster in order to quiet the body enough to breathe slower. That’s where running and riding comes in.
Many were the days when I went outside and literally talked myself into the rhythm of a run or a ride. Leaving the side of a sick spouse and going outside to run or ride can however be a jolt. You start to move and stop. You look around to see if anyone is watching. Then you start again.
Or, you ride slowly and realize after a couple blocks that you’ve completely forgotten to consider the two stop signs you just passed through. Your brain is preoccupied. Anxiety undermines your ability to concentrate, except when you concentrate so completely that all else around you disappears.
There are traces of ADHD in all this concentration stuff too. Anxiety has a relationship with ADHD, and it is somewhat ancestral and incestual. The two cannot always be separated. Suffice to say they are not happily complementary either.
And then along comes depression, the organic parallel and the flip side to anxiety. They are “opposite sides of the same coin” as one friend who has both anxiety and depression once told me.
Depression runs in our family. It runs in millions of families. Millions and millions of people experience clinical depression in their lives.
Running and riding can help treat all these experiential conditions. Anxiety. ADHD. Depression.
It’s true whether you experience these things episodically or as chronic conditions. Running and riding can help. Endurance activities help manage your body chemistry. They can lift your mood and help you focus by wicking off unnecessary thoughts. Especially negative ones.
I went to a counselor at the Living Well Cancer Resource Center in Geneva, Illinois, to help me cope with the psychological and emotional challenges of being a caregiver. I’d already seen my mother through to her death when she was diagnosed with lymphoma and pancreatic cancer the same year my wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Suddenly I was caregiver to my father, a stroke victim. He was emerging from the low function point of his stroke and turning out to be a feisty patient, a special burden during an acute time of grief. All kinds of guilty feelings swirled around.
So I’d go out and run those off too. At one point I was running through a forest preserve with headphones on and listening to Edward Elgar’s Nimrod. The performance was so full of gravitas and beauty that I literally fell to my knees in tears. Such are the vagaries and beauties of grief, anxiety and depression. You find yourself living in a world that feels like an entirely different dimension.
Ultimately I was prescribed a mild medication to help with the anxiety component of caregiving. Depression was not absent, but neither was it crippling. I’d learned to recognize the dangers of ruminative thoughts. I’d also learned to turn a few things over to God in prayer. It was amazing what came of that. Answers I could never have dreamed up myself.
And so it went. Yet at times the weight was too much to bear. I recall many a Saturday morning group ride when the pace would pick up and I had not the will to follow. I would just slide off the back, feeling wounded inside and unable to care. Feelings of ambivalence are common among those in depressive states.
Truly, I equated those feelings to something like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Called upon to react to stressful situations in training, my body and mind simply shut down or turned off. It was hard to explain to my riding partners. Normally I was a feisty, determined guy. During phases of being a caregiver to a cancer patient, the strength to ride my best simply was not there.
You need to break from those expectations in some way. That’s what I did. If people do not understand what you are going through, and that can happen even with your closest friends, then you need to find other channels. I rode slowly with a pastor friend instead. I rode with other partners who were happy to let me lead, because that’s where I felt most comfortable. It was hard to be pushed by others ahead of me. So they rode along behind and we chatted and I didn’t feel pressed or pushed to keep up. Friend are sometimes people who are just willing to follow you through life. It’s that simple. Thank you, Monte.
I make no apologies for any of that. I did my best. Trust me on this: That’s good enough.
In a recent Chicago Tribune article titled Defining Sorrow’s Subtleties by the fine writer Julie Deardorff, it comes to light that even professional psychologists struggle to understand the subtle differences between symptoms of grief and depression.
“In normal grief,” the article states, “people feel sad, unhappy, depressed and have trouble sleeping, features that overlap with major depression and may complicate the diagnosis. But many of the core characteristics of grief and major depression tend to be different. In grief, painful feelings often come in burst, maybe lasting 10 to 20 minutes. Early on, the so-called pangs of grief are pretty frequent, totally unanticipated.”
And here’s the interesting part, the article describes: “They may also be accompanied by positive feelings, such as pride, relief, comfort and even humor. Over time, the painful bursts become less frequent and intense, and are more often triggered by specific thoughts or memories.”
If you were to use those last two paragraphs to describe the experience of training for running and riding, and racing, they form a quite precise parallel of the feelings we go through in our respective sports.
Could it be that running and riding are quite literally coping functions for dealing with our own mortality? Could the daily grief at knowing this life is temporal and not designed to last be the very driver that makes us all want to move, to lift our spirits and to celebrate life as we know it?
That is a very real sensation to me. It has helped me know that while grieving is important, it is also important to move on in life. I have formed new relationships and started a new company. The loss of a loved one or the grief we feel in other aspects of life is real, yet we must understand that death and loss are part of life and can actually make us better people.
“Though everyone has his or her own way of dealing with grief,” the article “Defining Sorrow’s Subtleties” says, “experts recommend exercise, seeking out family, friends or support groups, and getting involved in new or different activities.”
Sounds like a lot of us are doing the right things to deal with life and grief. The two may be inseparable, but they don’t have to be insufferable. Running and riding helps us cross those bridges every time we come to them.