Time moves on: the psychological impact of living with stage 4 cancer


From a psychological perspective one of the most important
things that changes when living at stage 4 is the concept of time. To put this
in perspective it is useful to think about the different concepts of time people
in the world I live in have. These are:

  • Time in the universe: something we do not really
    understand apart from the belief the universe we live in had a start and will
    probably have an end.
  • Time as a physical entity: the passage of time
    as perceived by people and, usually, divided into agreed increments such as
    years, days, hours minutes, seconds, micro-seconds etc. Physical time is
    important in the way we organise our world and how we synchronise our
    activities with others in that world.
  • Time as a biological entity: that is biological
    rhythms and cycles.
  • Psychological time: our own perception of the
    passing of time, which is intertwined with the other forms of time we
    conceptualise. For example, many people would know that when they have a
    “deadline”, in the world of physical time, psychological time seems to move
    “quickly”, but when they are waiting for a bus it never seems to arrive!

These types of time interact and for the most part people
understand how they fit together. Sometimes there is a disruption the way time
is perceived and some readjustment is needed. Living with stage 4 is one of
those times. These adjustments will be different for each person – the
important thing is to realise the need for such an adjustment and to work out
ways to manage the changes that may be necessary to accommodate these changes.
Some examples of changes in my perception of time include:

  • At stage 4 time becomes important. When I
    mention this to people they usually interpret it as meaning I think one has to
    appreciate every moment and/or only engage in activities that one wants to
    engage in. But for me time is important because I want to fit a lot of things
    into what appears to be a more limited, physical, time frame. Many of these
    things are not particularly profound or stimulating in themselves, they are
    things I would have done over the next 20 -30 years, but now I have to do them
    within 20 – 30 months (or maybe even less). These are things like organising a
    family history, completing some work tasks that I think will be helpful for the
    future – and so on. It’s not about having more experiences; it’s about
    recording the experiences I have already had.
  • Biological cycles seem to change, sometimes this
    may be due to treatment, sometimes due to the stage 4 condition and sometimes
    due to the my bodies reaction to my perception of how time is moving.
  • The world does not change its pace. In the
    contemporary world, for many people, the psychological awareness of the passage
    of time is one of “speeding up”. Things happen more quickly, the expectation
    for speed of service increases, the time to information across the world
    increases and so on. I enjoy this increase in how things happen, but sometimes
    I would like to do things at a slower pace – and end up like the tortoise moving
    alongside the hare. Only, in this case the hare will keep going – and he
    tortoise is not trying to win a race, just move at its own pace.
  • Sometimes the reverse happens. I want to be the
    hare and some other aspect of my life is a tortoise. One example of this would
    be the pace the health system works at, or at least appears to work at.

How have I managed these changes in my perception of time?

  • My first step has been to try and become aware
    of these changes to my concept of time. Rather than getting concerned about why
    time appears to be different, I try think about the difference and the impact
    it is having on my day to day life. I then work out strategies to manage the
    differences. For example, instead of getting gloomy by the endless waiting time
    in hospital wait rooms –I make sure I always have something to do that I feel I
    do not usually have enough time to do; eg., read that special book, listen to a
    podcast. It is amazing how much downtime there is to squeeze “would I really
    like to do right now” activities into.
  • I have set up activities that I do regardless of
    what the world around me is doing. For example, my work colleagues race around
    keeping appointments – I go to the Gym for an hour. My work still gets done!
  • Because I am often a little more tired in the
    morning than when I was pre stage 4, I have changed my morning routine so that
    I do some of my early morning activities (that I would have done out of bed) in
    bed. For example, check the world news on my laptop rather than desktop. I
    still get to work on time!
  • I say no to activities that I really do not want
    to do. Often these are the “time filler” activities that friends are engaged in
    and I know if I was participating I would feel I would rather be doing
    something else.  On the other hand,
    spending time with friends and family is really important to me – so I work at
    trying to match time spent with important people in my life with activities
    that I like to do.

As I complete more blogs on living at stage 4 I will often
note that there is no right or wrong way to live at this stage. Everyone will
have different ways of how they manage their life in this situation. To me, the
important thing is that you feel in control of as much of your life as
possible, and managing time is a crucial part of this.


About Denys Yeo

I am an educational psychologist. My work is primarily in the area of special education. I live with stage 4 cancer. This blog aims to comment on the psychological impact of living in a stage 4 state.
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One Response to Time moves on: the psychological impact of living with stage 4 cancer

  1. Denys,

    I’m sorry that you have stage 4 cancer, but I’m happy to see how you handle it. Your perspective is great – don’t let that change. It is important to choose the way you look at your life and you’re doing that very well I see.

    Also, I noticed you said you read or listen to a podcast while waiting in hospital waiting rooms. That is a great thing to do while waiting. I have Ben Franklin’s autobiography on my phone and I plan on reading it in those spare moments to make the most of my time.

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