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!

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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!

Punching Cancer in the Face

Sometimes it would be really great to punch cancer in the face and be done with it.
Sometimes it would be really great to punch cancer in the face and be done with it.

QUESTION: Why does everyone insist on calling it the “fight” against cancer? – ISN’T THERE ANOTHER WORD?

Dear Another Word,

I really wish there was. If anyone can think of one, please let me know and we will start using it immediately.

The term “fight” is problematic because it implies both a winner and an ending. Neither of these (necessarily) apply to cancer. Even if you “win”, you’re still keeping an eye out for the rest of your life knowing full well it might come back. There is no ending, no conclusion to the fight. If you “lose”, does this mean you didn’t fight hard enough? How can it mean that?

“Fight” also implies that there’s something you can do about it. There’s treatment of course, but that’s not really an action on your part. If I was going to fight a bully, I would take a martial arts class and learn how to punch someone properly and do a lot of push-ups. Then, when I actually undertook the action of fighting the bully, the winner would be determined by who had more strength and more skill.

“Fighting” cancer works in a broader sense, in the sense that doctors and researchers with the skills to actually do something are working diligently at creating more tools in the arsenal. But it fails in the individual sense, because there is very, very little, I, as an individual, can do to contribute to whether or not I win the fight.

Now, of course, there are things you can do to make it easier to win – eating enough healthy food and having a positive attitude seriously work miracles – but the actual fight comes down to the question of do the tools we have work against the problem presented?

There are many great organizations working on better tools. In the meantime, we will do the best with what we have right now.

 

What do you think? How did you “fight” against cancer?

 

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!

Anything is a Better Conversation Topic than Cancer

Cancer plays baseball!
“How about that game last night?” is always a good way to deflect conversations (about cancer or otherwise).

QUESTION: I’m in the middle of treatment and my cancer seems to be the only thing that people can talk about. It’s not that I’m trying to ignore everything, but I am more than a sick person and I do more things than get chemo treatments! Could we talk about the new Avengers movie? Or the Red Sox? Or anything else please! – MORE THAN A PATIENT

Dear More than a Patient,

You’re absolutely right. It is extremely frustrating when everyone around you wants to talk about the one thing you would rather ignore. It’s hard to maintain a self apart from your cancer when that is what everyone sees when they look at you.

The good news is, they all really care about you. Most people aren’t with you all the time, so they only ever think about your cancer in small increments, which aren’t as overwhelming. When they see you, they are genuinely trying to show their concern and help as much as they can – which is not something people know how to do.

In your case, it would probably be best to just take control of the conversation from the offset. Right when people walk in the door, say something like, “Great to see you! Did you catch the game last night?”. Most people will take their cue about how to act from you. If you are calm and relaxed and talking about baseball, which is probably something they would like to discuss as well, they will follow your lead. Or, if they manage to get in a question about how you’re feeling, you could answer and then move forward, “Same as always. Did you catch the game last night?”. The key is to redirect the conversation where YOU want it to go.

The unfortunate thing is, this will happen for the rest of time. There will be many times in your life when you’ll want to start a story with “This one time, I had cancer and….“, so redirecting the conversation is a valuable skill to learn. Good luck!

 

What would you rather talk about during cancer treatment? How did you maintain your separate, non-cancer identity?

 

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!