My friend’s husband was diagnosed with cancer this week and she reached out to me for advice. My heart goes out to them both as they embark on a journey that will certainly be challenging. After I contacted her, I got to thinking, what would I have wanted to know when I was first diagnosed? As they say, hindsight is always 20/20, so this post is dedicated to her and her husband and to all those who just had to hear those life-changing words, “You have cancer.”
1. Put your hands up and step away from the Internet. There will be multiple occasions where you will want to ask Google, “Am I going to die from this, yes or no?” completely expecting whatever answer that pops up on your computer screen to be your fate. When you are first diagnosed you will cling to any and all information regarding your cancer/prognosis/etcetera from any source—credible or otherwise. For example, I remember one night when I could not sleep during chemo as I was so incredibly fearful of what might happen to me. So, I did what any normal person would do, I found a “life expectancy generator” on-line. No lie, people. I answered all 100 automatically generated questions and submitted my results, holding my breath when I clicked the button to see just when I was going to die. There are some resources, however, that are wonderful, helpful, reliable sources of information—it is your job to differentiate between the two. Google wisely and sparingly.
2. Find someone who had your same type, grade, and stage of cancer ASAP. You have no idea how comforting, positive, and necessary this part of your journey will be. When you are diagnosed you will certainly be surrounded by friends and family that want to do nothing more than to help you and be there for you—take it from me, that is NOT enough. You need to find someone who has fought the same battle that you have. The hope this will give you—seeing that someone else you are actually able to talk to did it—will empower you knowing that you can too. There are organizations out there that have these mentor programs and can connect you with someone. For breast cancer patients, Young Survival Coalition has a great peer mentoring program called “SurvivorLink” that I participated in (http://www.youngsurvival.org/programs/connect/survivorlink/). Also, Imerman Angels, based in Chicago, does great work for individuals around the country and around the world, connecting people with similar cancer diagnoses as well as connecting caregivers (http://www.imermanangels.org/).
3. Prepare your body for what is about to happen. I knew that chemo was going to be absolutely grueling and would test me physically and mentally more than anything else had in my life. Because of this, after my initial surgery and before chemo my number one goal was to put my body in the absolute best possible shape it could be in so it could handle the treatment. This means good nutrition, physical conditioning, and mental focus. I ate as many green vegetables as I could get my hands on. Seriously, the people at the local organic market became close friends of mine. I juiced religiously. And, I stayed away from processed foods. I could feel my body respond to the nutrients it was receiving which allowed me to exercise and build up my physical endurance as well.
4. You have got to figure out how to get yourself to a good place, mentally. When I was first diagnosed with stage three breast cancer at the age of 28, I cried non-stop for two weeks. That was two weeks of tears, often intense sob-fests. All I could think about was death and leaving my family behind. I was in a dark, dark place. There was a moment, however, that I opted to come out of my funk and rejoin the world. That moment was the night before my mastectomy. I realized that that kind of absolute sadness was just not sustainable. The realist in me also recognized that if I just have a few months or years to live then I better as heck get to living and stop all this crying nonsense. So, I snapped out of it because I had no real choice—I had to go through the treatment if I wanted to live, so why not show cancer who’s boss and have as many good times as possible during this mess? I believe this “come to Jesus” moment, when you are able to sort of deal with the magnitude of the situation, comes to every person with cancer at one point or another. I am just suggesting that you do what you have to do to come to it sooner rather than later because you are doing yourself a solid.
5. Place confidence in your doctors, find comfort in your treatment. There will be moments during your journey no matter how much Zen you have managed to achieve when you wake up in the middle of the night and go freaking bonkers because, well, you have cancer for goodness’ sake. This is when you pull out the big guns—SCIENCE. The advancements over the last decade in the field of medical oncology are enormous and people fight and beat cancer every day thanks to them. So, remember this when you start projectile crying and thrashing around your house like a science fiction character in a low budget movie. Find comfort in the treatment you have come to despise. Find comfort in it because it has cured countless people before you and it will do the same for you.
6. Don’t let that mind of yours wander too far off course. There is absolutely no point in considering the “what ifs” of your personal cancer scenario. Allowing your mind to wander there serves no purpose—it just stresses you out. A quote that I remind myself over and over again during my continuing journey is this: “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it [only] empties today of its strength.” Think about that for five seconds—how true it is that the result of your worry is nothing but unfounded stress. There is no point to it and that stress manifests itself in your body in surprising and harmful ways that you do not need, especially when you are fighting for your life.
7. This is the big leagues, so figure out your relationships and figure them out now. You need supportive people and supportive people only in your life right now. If there is someone in your life that is going to present a problem, and be less than 100% there for you, you need to get rid of them. I am sorry if this seems blunt, but, well, it should be. You do not have time, or the physical or emotional stamina, to nurture an unhealthy relationship while you are engaging in the fight for your life. So say goodbye in as nice a way as you can, and move on. It really is as simple as that.
8. Find something cathartic; I don’t care what it is. When I was first diagnosed all I did was shop. I bought a ton of clothes that I would never wear because for the next year I was sick as a dog and a majority of my interactions with others were in my head with the characters in my favorite TV shows. With my depleted bank account as inspiration, I looked for something else to express myself and get me through the more challenging times of treatment. For me that was writing, for you it may be astrophysics. It doesn’t matter what it is, all that matters is that it gets your mind off cancer for a few minutes and allows you to take yourself away to a place where things are achievable, creativity is possible, and hope exists.
9. Beautiful moments will appear during this whole mess, embrace them. I would have never in a million years believed this was true when I was first diagnosed, but it is. The journey is truly one of self-exploration and examination. You go in one person and you come out someone much different. You will be wiser, you will be stronger, and because of what you have learned you will be happier. You will be happier because you will have learned to see the beauty in every little thing because the preciousness of life and our luck to be here on this earth will be revealed to you in striking ways. Your relationships will flourish and your heart will be at peace knowing you can slay a beast bigger than you ever imagined. There will be heartache and tears and that is OK to feel those things and cry those tears, but in the midst of it all you will have these moments of inexplicable clarity where you see the world in a way you cannot explain to others. It will be like your own closely-held secret that you have with yourself. I believe cancer is evil and terrible and should die (obviously), but the perspective you gain from it is like no other. Allow yourself to be open to this kind of discovery because through all of this you earned that kind of insight into life.