Using the 'Ball and the Box Analogy' to Navigate Living With Cancer

Recently I came across a picture being shared on social media that brilliantly illustrated grief. It is called “The Ball and the Box Analogy”. Lauren Herschel originally posted the photo (shown below) with the explanation that the “button” represents the pain you feel from grief and loss. The “ball” bounces around, and whenever it hits the “button” we feel the pain that comes with loss. When we first experience grief, the “ball” is huge. It easily and frequently hits the pain button, and it’s hard to avoid or ignore it. As time goes on, the “ball” shrinks. This doesn’t mean that the pain hurts any less when it’s hit, but the actual hits become less frequent, allowing more recovery time in between.

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I instantly related to this concept. When you or a loved one first receives a cancer diagnosis, it feels like the “ball” is constantly pressing against the “button” of fear and pain. Everything happens very quickly, and there is little time for relief. But, as you find your footing, there are things you can do to help shrink the “ball”. Finding an oncological team you trust shrinks the “ball.” Solidifying your treatment plan shrinks the “ball”. Each step you take towards healing helps to shrink it until, hopefully, your day-to-day begins to feel manageable.

The grief experienced while living with cancer is not exactly the same as the grief experienced when you lose a loved one, but it shares many similarities. With the loss of a loved one, something painful has happened, but over time, the “ball” shrinks and it becomes easier to manage. Living with cancer, or being the spouse of someone living with cancer, feels like a living, breathing grief. You have to grieve your old life, while fearing for the next step, while striving to thrive and get the most out of the present moment. That’s a lot to ask someone to take on! It’s like a balancing act, but the audience is throwing things at you from every direction.

The difference between using this analogy to illustrate grief and using it to understand living with cancer is that your “ball” can also grow. As your scans are coming up, you may notice more consistent fear or pain. The “ball” has grown a little. It is temporary, but it may even grow big enough to once again relentlessly press the “button”. On the flip side, maybe your scan results are good, and the “ball” gets smaller, allowing your mind to settle for longer and longer periods of time between fear flare ups.

Tommy and I are learning every day how to live with what we think of as a chronic illness. At the moment, his treatment is bearable, and he feels healthy and strong. We are blessed to be living in a period of “normalcy”, but as his next scan approaches, I can feel the ball rumbling and growing as our worries rise up again. What can I do about this? Do I have to live at the will of that damn ball, or is there something I can do to find relief?

Today, I unintentionally allowed my mind to race. I felt that familiar pang of grief at the “loss” of our old lives, and I brutally felt the pain caused by fear of our future. As I sensed the start of a melt down (which I entirely expected to occur), I was massively surprised to feel the “ball” hit the “button"…but then bounced away. It was a hit, and a release. The hit was just as powerful and scary as always, but it was not a steady press. A moment which could have led to a day-long sob fest, did not. I felt the fear, let it go, and got back to work.

I was able to release it with more ease, and at a much quicker pace than I am typically able to. Was my “ball” shrinking? I don’t think so. In all honestly, I am very afraid at the moment. I am very sad. I am very angry. The “ball” is big, but I think what is actually happening is that the “box” is growing too. The “box” is acceptance. The “box” is the ability to focus on the present. I have been doing a lot of uncomfortable work on facing and releasing fear, on my own, as well as with my therapist. This work has led to growth.

Even if the “ball” is constantly changing sizes, you have the opportunity to develop and grow the “box”. This ability to change the parameters of your situation allows for a sense of control. Maybe I can’t control the size of the “ball”, but I can practice balance, and I can grow. I am learning to look at situations with grace and attempt to move through them with understanding.

Practicing balance builds muscles and develops tools you can use to navigate these confusing and painful moments. There is not an exact road map (that would be amazing), so in order to keep your footing and find your path, you have to practice what feels right to you. You’re doing an incredible job just by trying. The balance will come, as long as you keep accepting the invitation to grow. It feels a lot like sitting on this glass bridge. Sometimes I can’t see the ground under me, but if I focus, use my tools, and lean on my support, I can feel it. I trust that it’s there. And I can start walking again.

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