Cancer Journey

Three Lessons on Fighting Cancer from United States Marine Corps Veterans

Learn how their military experience shaped their perspectives as they faced cancer.

By Katie Ressler

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When entering any branch of the military, most service members are not especially thinking about what they will personally get out of their time in service. They go into the military to use their talent and strength to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all Americans. What they don’t realize is that through their service, they often receive many invaluable skills, traits and life lessons that will help them face adversity no matter what they face.

Life is full of challenges – including difficult health issues and diseases like cancer. Being able to pull from previous experience can help a patient face cancer with grit and determination in the midst of physical, mental and emotional challenges.

For Veteran’s Day, we honor those Americans among us who chose a life of service through the United States Armed Forces. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), we’ve been lucky to meet some incredible veterans whose strength and determination, traits that they honed during their days of service, inspire us to continue fighting cancer each and every day.

We had the opportunity to speak with some of the Veterans fighting cancer at CTCA® and learned three incredible lessons from them.

Veteran Cancer Fighters at CTCA

David S., a stage IV prostate cancer patient, was a United States Marine for 20 years. He worked as an infantryman, aviation electrician, and recruiter throughout his tenure and lived across the United States, as well as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Wake Island, Norway.

Wade W., a vocal cord cancer patient, also served as a United States Marine where he worked as a truck driver for the Marine Corps in South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas and the Dakotas.

Here are three lessons they shared about how their military service helped them face cancer.

1. Fighting cancer is hard, but your attitude can help make a difference.

“Attitude plays a huge role in the cancer journey,” says Alexandria Callahan, LCPC, BC-DMT, behavioral health therapist at CTCA Chicago. “Many people come in saying ‘I’m trying to stay positive because negative thinking is bad for my health.’ This is where we do a lot of education and reframing…cancer can be traumatic to the patient. We encourage patients to give themselves permission to feel all the emotions so that they are not holding them in. This also helps to decrease the stress that can be associated with holding things in or bottling them up.”

Callahan explains that while many patients experience negative feelings, some patients may identify themselves as pessimists in general and go to worst-case scenarios. In these cases, the team at CTCA works with patients using different methods, such as mindfulness, to help decrease stress and improve attitude.

“Staying in the present moment is also helpful with attitude. When we think too much about the past ‘should haves’ we can become depressed. In the same vein when we worry about the future ‘what ifs’ we can become anxious,” says Callahan. “Staying in the present moment may help a person check in with how they are doing today and what their body needs right now to continue moving forward.”

Dave agrees that attitude makes a difference. Setting health goals and keeping focused and aligning your attitude toward achieving those goals can help.

“Quitting as a Marine was never an option. Giving up on cancer is never an option for me,” says Dave. “I feel it is so important for me to keep a positive attitude. The personnel at CTCA make it easy to stay positive with their kindness and genuine care that they show every patient.”

Patients struggling with stress, anxiety and other feelings can turn to a behavioral health therapist to learn different methods to cope.

“Recognizing our emotions while treating for cancer is a very important part of coping,” says Elaine Smith, behavioral health therapist at CTCA Atlanta. “Psychosocial interventions can help us feel more positive and increase our quality of life. Individual support, group therapy, relaxation and meditation can be useful to reduce our distress and help keep our emotions manageable.”

 2. A cancer journey requires perseverance and grit.

For Wade, one of the most valuable lessons he learned in the military was accepting his circumstances and choosing to persevere.

Grit is a trait often attributed to service members. Anyone who knows a cancer fighter also knows that grit is a powerful quality that grows in abundance during a cancer journey.

“Perseverance and grit can help patients be pro-active for their cancer care and interventions for treatment,” says Smith. “These two qualities can help patients be informed, ask questions, and to be an “active” participant in their care planning. This can help cancer patients feel empowered and in control.”

Many patients have many months or even years of cancer treatment. Continuing to endure through often very difficult treatments can be trying. Many veterans can draw from their military experience in such difficult experience. Through their perspectives, when circumstances are difficult and you overcome them, your grit and ability to persevere continue to increase.

3. Allow yourself to depend on others and your faith.

For many people, it can be difficult to ask for help or depend on others, even in the midst of a difficult cancer journey.

“Support systems, no matter the size, are helpful for motivation and comfort. We all have rough days and going through the cancer journey along with continuing with life can be even more challenging,” says Callahan. “Allowing for help, especially when going through treatment, provides the body the time and space it needs to recuperate and continue to heal.”

For David and Wade, learning to depend on others and on faith made all the difference.

“I think that my time in the Marines taught me to depend on my fellow Marine to help protect me and support me when needed. The Marines also taught us to work as a team (Gung Ho), because you can get more done as a team,” says David. “In your challenges in life, get a good support team. Do your research, and make sure that your team has the winning spirit and is willing to go the mile with you. My team for my cancer was God and CTCA.”

Wade also suggests turning to your faith, using the power of prayer to help throughout your cancer journey. He states, “God is in charge and prayer is mighty.”

Relying on others can help you reserve and renew your strength and energy to help you to continue working toward your health goals.

This Veteran’s Day, we thank all those who have served in the United States Military. Your past service and current perspectives inspire us in our daily fight against cancer.