Break out of Cancer Prison

Fear of cancer returning can keep you in a prison
Fear of cancer returning can keep you in a prison

QUESTION: I finished treatments almost 4 years ago, but I am still struggling with fear. I’m haunted every day by worries about cancer returning. Am I the only one that struggles with fear? Did you go through that? – STILL SCARED

 

Dear Still Scared,

You are definitely not the only one. There are many threads of discussions on cancer community boards discussing this very topic.

It takes everyone different amounts of time and different ways to get through the trauma of cancer and cancer treatment. Some people take up meditation. Some people turn to religion.  Some people throw themselves into non-cancer-related activities, like travel or knitting or sports. They ALL lean on their family and friends to remind them that you can’t live your life scared of something that MIGHT happen. You need to move on.

For me, I know that the statistical likelihood of getting cancer if you’ve had chemo PLUS the statistical likelihood of getting cancer in general as you get older…..I kind of just assume I’m going to get it again. Eventually. The trick is to catch it early enough that you can do something about it. And since I’ve beat it once, it’s totally a problem that I can get past again. So all I really need to do is make sure I keep up with my annual visits and be vigilante and everything will turn out fine.

That being said, I’m a big believer in the effects of having a positive attitude. This may not work for you. A lot of people who go through something like cancer, at any age, become depressed or can experience symptoms of PTSD. Bottling it up doesn’t help. Talk to your parents, your friends, your hospital support group. If you’ve gone this long and are still living in fear, it might be time to speak with a licensed professional.

You can’t let fear control your life. Don’t let the fear win. Don’t let the cancer win. You don’t need to be scared: been there, done that, brought home the trophy.

 

How did you cope with the fear of cancer returning? What did you use to get past the fear?

 

As always, would love to get your take in the comments. Feel free to ask a question and get updates by liking me on Facebook or following me on Twitter!

I did not WANT cancer, but I would not CHANGE having it.

Stephen Colbert Singing in the Rain Photo Credit: GQ
Stephen Colbert Singing in the Rain Photo Credit: GQ

Yesterday I was reading the GQ cover story about Stephen Colbert and his new version of the late show. It covered some of his backstory that I wasn’t previously aware of, including the loss of his father and two older brothers at age 10. Towards the end of the discussion, Stephen brought up something that really resonated with me in terms of having and living past cancer.

 

“I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” …

I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest … “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

“It’s not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened.”

 

Stephen’s philosophy, borrowed from Tolkien, nicely sums up the way that I have felt about my cancer for a long time: I did not WANT it, but I would not CHANGE it. 

Of course, I do not WANT to have had cancer when I was in college. It was awful and I would not wish that on anyone.

That being said, my life today (which I love) would not have happened if I had not gone through that ordeal. My best friends from college are my freshman roommates who stood by me during chemo. I would not have been as close to them without cancer. My decision to pursue a major that I loved, my decision to teach English in France after college, the delay in when I started drinking, the risks that I took and the decisions I made were all a direct result of the 12 months I spent in chemotherapy during freshman year.

For me, being grateful for the amazing life that has resulted is more natural – and more productive – than being bitter about going through the ordeal in the first place. Attitude is everything, both during treatment and after.

Which reminds me of another, more well-known, Tolkien quote (~1:55). During Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo turns to Gandalf and says “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide  is what to do with the time we are given to us.”

 

How do you feel about cancer now that you are past it? What have you decided to do with your time?

 

As always, would love to get your take in the comments. Feel free to ask a question and get updates by liking me on Facebook or following me on Twitter!

Community can Help

Facing the world together.
Facing the world together.

Originally published by Cancer Spot, a new app-based cancer support community, on their blog.

 

QUESTION: Everyone is always going on and on about the cancer community and how supportive it is. I’m not really involved right now, but is it something I should look in to? – AM I A MEMBER?

Dear Member #1,

I’ll be honest, I didn’t take advantage of the community while I was going through chemo. The counselors with my oncology department told me about various camps and programs. My mother attended several support groups. I could have reached out and spoken to people like me if I had wanted to.

But I didn’t. I didn’t want to be part of the cancer community. I didn’t want to sit around talking about why chemo sucks and which drugs suck more or less. I wanted to go back to class. I wanted to talk to my friends about the costume party on Friday or the pet rabbit that we had adopted. I wanted my life to be as normal as possible.

Thankfully that worked for me. I had an extremely supportive family, friend group, administration, and treatment team. Everyone did everything they could to make sure my life was as normal as it could be, as I wanted it to be.

But not everyone is that lucky. Most people need to talk about how cancer sucks and know that they’re not alone.  Especially when you’re isolated in your house because you’re immunosuppressed, you may need someone to reach out to who can talk you through things. That’s one of the reasons I started this blog.

The internet is an amazing place. Over the last couple of years there has been a huge proliferation of people reaching out to talk about their cancer and support others going through the same thing. Some websites offer advice on financing your healthcare treatment. Some offer medical advice and specifics about various medications. And some, like Cancer Spot, offer a place to talk, to meet people, to hear about what other people are experiencing and know that you’re not alone.

Even though it’s taken me this long, I’m an active part of the community now. It’s a wonderful group of people whose sole purpose is to help YOU in whatever way you need. If that means you don’t take advantage now, that’s okay. You’re welcome to come after treatment, in 5 years, in 10 years, whenever you’re ready. I’ll see you there.

 

How have you taken advantage of the online cancer community? What support resources can you recommend?

 

Have a question of your own? Ask Chemo between Classes through the Question Submission Form or by emailing chemobetweenclasses@gmail.com . You can get new posts by subscribing via email in the lower right hand corner, liking me on Facebook, or following me on Twitter!

Cancer Shouldn’t Get You Dumped

Relationships don't stop because you have cancer.
Relationships don’t stop because you have cancer.

QUESTION: I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer and I’m terrified about telling my friends. I don’t know how they’ll react. Particularly my boyfriend – what if he dumps me? He’s my first real boyfriend, so I don’t really know what to do.  – DON’T WANT TO BE DUMPED

 

Dear Don’t Want to be Dumped,

That is a perfectly reasonable thing to be worried about. People react in a lot of different ways when their friends get cancer. Some of them are awesome and keep you sane; others drift away. The trick is to find out who is who quickly, so you can focus on them and not worry about the others.

I was scared of the same thing when I was diagnosed, but my boyfriend at the time, Nate, was really sweet about it. It took him a couple of minutes to process, but then he stayed by my side and supported me through the whole thing. I dragged him out of choir practice to go to the salon with me when I decided to shave my head. He visited me in the hospital. He continued to find me sexy, even when I was bald. He thought wearing different wigs on different days was hilarious… but I made sure to wear his favorite blond one when we were going out on a date.

We eventually did break up, but it had nothing to do with the cancer. We had been together for a year and a half, had grown apart, and both of us were ready to move on.

What would you do if he came to you and said he was sick? You would try to take care of him, right? I know he’s a guy, but give him some credit. You’re dating him for a reason. Or, alternatively, think about it this way: What kind of jerk dumps a girl when she’s just received such horrible news? Why would you want to be dating him anyway?

 

How did your significant other react when you were diagnosed? Were there any reactions that really surprised you?

 

Have a question of your own? Ask Chemo between Classes through the Question Submission Form or by emailing chemobetweenclasses@gmail.com . You can get new posts by subscribing via email in the lower right hand corner, liking me on Facebook, or following me on Twitter!

Friends Show Up during Chemo

Hold on to your friendships during cancer.
Hold on to your friendships during cancer.

QUESTION: My friend just got diagnosed with cancer. I’m so scared and worried, but I don’t want to do the wrong thing and make it worse. What should I do? – TRYING TO BE HELPFUL

 

Dear Helpful,

The good news is that anything you do will be helpful. So many people are very uncomfortable with cancer or don’t want to say the wrong thing that they just disappear altogether. It’s not that they don’t want to help, they just don’t know how and opt to “not bother the patient”. He/she is still your friend, nothing has changed about that, so what do you think would make them feel better? Watching a basketball game? Getting some presents? Playing board games? If you’re not close enough to hang out, send them a physical letter. Everyone loves getting mail.

Cancer can be very isolating – the very best thing you can do as a friend is show up.

When I was sick, a lot of my friends and family from out of town sent me gift baskets full of things like good-smelling soap and stuffed animals. My grandmother came down and had  a priest do a blessing on me. Several of my more religious relatives asked their churches to pray for my recovery. These were all very sweet, loving gestures to show that I was not alone.

My roommates, who did not have cars on campus, found other people with cars and drove the hour to visit me in the hospital once or twice. My boyfriend did the same thing several times, which always meant a lot to me. Best of all, my high school friends, who lived in the same town as my hospital, would stop by EVERY SINGLE TIME I went in for chemo. Mostly they just came and hung out for an hour or two and we would chat or watch movies. But it was SO important to know that I could count on them to be there, that I hadn’t driven people away by being sick.

Your friend is sick, but they’re still your friend. What would you guys normally do together? Do that. It will help. It will allow them to realize that while they have to do cancer treatment for a while, they are still the same person, that doesn’t need to change, and there will come a time when they can move past this.

 

What did you want to do with your friends when you had cancer? How did your friends help you during treatments?

 

Have a question of your own? Ask Chemo between Classes through the Question Submission Form or by emailing chemobetweenclasses@gmail.com . You can get new posts by subscribing via email in the lower right hand corner, liking me on Facebook, or following me on Twitter!