Cancer, blessings, and opportunities

Hello my blog peeps!

Sorry I haven’t posted for a month, I’m gearing up. The ideas are in the brain but for those of you who do not know, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in March of this year. In April I had a mastectomy, in May I had my Powerport put in, and began chemo. I finished chemo at the end of the summer and had a full hysterectomy in October and last week I had the first part of breast reconstruction surgery. All this to say that the past month has been a little tricky as far as movement. Right now my left arm is stuck by my side like a T-Rex and if I lean forward I can feel the expander and it hurts. I did not realize that the tissue expander that they put in is not just under the skin but that the dr. cuts the muscle from the chest wall and puts the expander behind and under the muscle. Now I know why the brave women before me warned that this is the most painful part of the surgeries. They are right. But life could be much worse so I’m not looking for pity here. I’m a recovering cancer patient, I shall be an overcomer!

Not everyone has that happy ending and cancer can be very lonely. During chemo you are more likely to die than during surgeries. You have no immune system and the slightest cold can mean hospitalization and horrible things for you. Folks without cancer sneeze or cough and when you get concerned they wave your worry away with “Oh, it’s just allergies“. They are not always right. A fever of 100.5 Fahrenheit requires you to call your oncologist. You can’t join in big group activities (football game get togethers, street fairs, parties, etc) because it’s that serious. I was in the infusion room one day when an older woman came in upset because her grandchild was brought by and the 4 month old had a cold and made Grandma sick. There is the option of wearing the mask. This has the effect of making others back away as if you have Ebola, LOL  I will admit to adding a fake cough a couple of times when people acted rudely because of my mask. Wrong, I know, but it was fun. The other thing is, do you really want to trust your life to a thin piece of paper over your nose and mouth?

It will sound strange but cancer has been a blessing. I’ve met people who have share their stories with me and we’ve become closer. Or sometimes they said something that was just the right thing that I needed to hear at that moment. Cancer can also surprise you in the way people react. Those who you think are close and will be supportive sometimes become distant. I finally had someone privately message me that they were sorry they weren’t contacting me since my diagnosis but they didn’t know what to say. Do you know what to say to a friend or family member with cancer? The same things you used to say. You don’t need to talk about the cancer. In fact people always wanting you to talk about it or asking how you are makes you think about it more. There were days I just didn’t answer the phone because I was tired of repeating how chemo went, the

Chemotherapy bottles
Chemotherapy bottles

shots, etc.  But don’t back away. Just be there.  Come over and watch a silly movie or stop by and just chat about everything else in the world. Be honest and admit you don’t know what to say, that’s fine. What hurts is silence and absence from those you never thought would disappear. Not that I should have to say this but unfortunately I experienced this so many times that I went from thinking the first person that did it was an unthinking idiot to wondering what is wrong with people, and that is this: DO NOT EVER share stories of others you have known who had cancer and then died from it. That is the last thing we want to hear and why would you ever repeat that to someone who you must realize is worried about death. Because whether you are stage I or stage IV that worry is still there.

Cancer is also an opportunity. It forces you to slow down, forces you to rest, forces you to be still and think. For me it’s brought me closer to God. Sounds odd because some people get angry at God when they are diagnosed. I looked at it this way – everyone gets something bad in this life. Whether it’s an abusive relationship, financial ruin, death of a loved one (worst of all the death of a child), a horrible divorce, etc. No matter what we all get our bad thing that we must go through. My bad thing is cancer. So I was not angry and I prayed and read and it brought me closer to God. But each person is different. It also forces you to prioritize your life. That on again/off again relationship you’ve had guess what? After cancer it will probably remain off because when you are forced to face your mortality and realize that this time on earth is short you will begin to realize that you are here to be happy, to love and be loved, to help others, and you won’t accept less from others. I’ve decided to go to Grad School in a completely new and unexpected direction.  Before cancer I would have thought “Ah, I’m 52 now, it’s too late”  Instead I say “I’m only 52 and I haven’t fought this hard to be well just to exist. I’m going to do something I love and make the world a little bit better if I can and I’m going to try to be a better person“. Not just cancer but anything that shakes your life to the core will bring you to this point. It’s a great opportunity to make sure that you are the you that you want to be (that sounds very Dr. Seuss-ish, LOL) doing what makes you happy and surrounding yourself with people you love.

My final four thoughts and that is all that they are, my own thoughts, so take them or leave them:

  • First (as many people and songs tell you) make sure to tell your friends and family that you love them whenever you can. Maybe write a note in your Christmas cards telling each person how grateful you are that they are in your life and what their friendship has meant to you.  This is not a goodbye, just a thank you for being my friend, because of you I learned to be more patient, for example.
  • Secondly – unless you are diagnosed as Stage IV cancer OR if your treatment will take more than one year, cancer is not considered a disability. You can not collect money from disability and yet you will miss so much time off from work. Cancer itself causes exhaustion. Many people with undiagnosed cancer will be wondering why they are exhausted all the time and also getting easily winded (another sign of possible cancer). Combine this with chemo which adds a whole other dimension of exhaustion and you will be surprised how much time you need to rest. Friends and families of cancer patients – please help out as much as you can. If you can mow lawns or shovel walks, do the laundry, get the dog/cat to their vet check ups or kids to dr./dentist appointments, do the grocery shopping, clean the house (there is an organization that cleans houses for cancer patients Cleaning for a Reason that you might help the patient sign up for), take the kids out so that they get a break from thinking about their sick parent and the patient has time to truly rest, etc. The problem is that many folks do this at the initial diagnosis or initial surgery but as time goes on they forget these needs still exist for the cancer patient, so please help.  Offer rides to and from chemo, appointments, picking up prescriptions, etc. If the person needs financial help but is proud, gift cards to grocery stores, gas stations, pizza delivery, can be mailed anonymously and then your friend will have some relief. Cancer is the number one reason in the United States for people filing personal bankruptcy.
  • Number three is for cancer patients themselves. Positivity is very important in your recovery. That being said, you don’t have to go through cancer like a Stepford Wife. Every now and then you will need to cry, you will need to scream, you can be angry and sad and no, it’s not fair. It’s irritating that things you could do months ago, you are now too weak to do.  It doesn’t make sense that you get lung cancer and never smoked, or that you’ve spent your life helping others and you get sick when you see that miserable neighbor who hates everyone stay healthy. It’s not fair and you should definitely feel free to vent your feelings. Your family and friends should know this is okay. Unless you sink into a nonstop depression, which is possible. But never apologize for your feelings. There’s a great Facebook page – Cancer Sucks, and I tell you, join it. It’s a great way to connect with people who know exactly how you feel.
  • Final thought of the day is this – if you are diagnosed stage IV cancer, being terrified is normal.  Who wouldn’t be? And you’ll get tired of being sick and miss the days of being well. But I’ve met many stage IV folks who are alive well past the time that doctors gave them (several years in 4 cases). You are yourself, you are not defined by a medical test. Don’t give up. Know that yes, death is possible and get things in order, and spend as much time as you can with those you love each day and do what you enjoy, but don’t think you won’t be here this time next year because you very well may be. Focus on life and love and let the diagnosis be just that, words on a page. Show the world your amazing self.
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