Sweat the Small Cancer Stuff

I thought being an astronaut sounded like great fun until I read “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” by Col. Chris Hadfield. Although I still think it would be a hoot to float around without the pull of gravity, I have a newfound appreciation for the extensive commitment it takes to be one of the few who leaves the planet. After reading the book, subtitled “What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything,” I gleaned some wisdom applicable to healing in general and to a cancer patient specifically.

Hadfield shares one mantra of wisdom that space travelers keep in the forefront of their consciousness: “What is the next thing that could kill me?” It sounds absurd until Hadfield lays out precisely how the slightest problem can cause the demise of oneself or the entire crew. The Challenger and Columbia disasters are examples. Yet how do space agencies render inherently dangerous missions into relatively safe scientific missions? The answer is an exorbitant amount of preparation.

CC0 NASA/Unsplash

What that looks like to us earthbound mortals is months of planning for each day in space, including countless simulations and working out every possible thing that could go wrong. Preparing for the worst helps (but does not ensure) astronauts and the guiding ground crew have a contingency plan in place for “working the problem,” NASA lingo for methodically working down a decision tree for solutions to problems.

Because the unpredictable happens, Hadfield shares his perspective that astronauts are better prepared for “sweating the small stuff” in counterpoint to the more commonplace self-help phrase “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Like space travel, life is full of unknowns—sometimes big unknowns—so the best way to mitigate risk is attending to every detail we can control. 

When there’s a system in place and all team members do their jobs, amazing things like walking on the moon or building the International Space Station happen. So, too, it is with the body and optimizing human health. For someone diagnosed with cancer, the question “What is the next thing that could kill me?” is serious business. All too often patients feel disempowered and hand their health over solely to an oncology team.

Yet with any disease diagnosis, even the most devastating ones, it is possible to “work the problem” by sweating the small stuff. With cancer, that may be all we have control over. Think of it this way: If disease burden is significant and surgery or immunotherapy is in one’s future, the small stuff that needs tending to is all the micro-decisions that can make those heroic measures more effective with fewer complications. That includes anything that restores and builds resilience, and we have the power to do that no matter the starting point.

There is always room to grow stronger, to build health by attending to the details of daily living. They may seem insignificant compared to mainstream oncology treatment, but good habits developed at any stage of the healing journey can make arrival at remission that much more graceful and reinforce remission well into the future.

Whether it’s cancer, heart disease, or the common cold, let all experiences of compromised health be an invitation to sweat the small stuff. If that’s good enough for an astronaut on a spacewalk, it most certainly is good enough for those of us planet-side.

February 5, 2023

Categories: Cancer

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