“Well, I am sorry to tell you, Brett, but the biopsy confirms that you have cancer. It’s Lymphoma. This is a form of cancer of the lymphatic system.”
This was the straightforward delivery of my doctor and the exact moment when everything changed in my life. I was 18 years old at the time and a freshman in college. My treatment course and subsequent battle against cancer lasted for the next 16 months, ultimately culminating in a Stem Cell Transplant. The many thoughts and emotions I experienced from that first second until my final treatment were as conflicted as they were plentiful, and as embarrassing as they were empowering, but not unique.
I have subsequently learned that cancer patients, particularly newly-diagnosed cancer patients, share a few specific emotions and ask oddly similar questions of themselves in those first few weeks. And it is these thoughts and questions that I’d like to discuss. It is the fear. It is the anger. It is the frustration, and it is the acceptance.
It is the overwhelming worry and anxiety regarding one’s own mortality suddenly being thrust into your everyday… heck, every-second…level of consciousness. Cancer represents an intimate betrayal that your physical body imparts on itself, and on the emotional counterpart that is your mind. And how does one prepare to fight…itself…yourself?
There are good cancer patients and there are not-so-good ones. Be a “good” cancer patient.
I am going to take full advantage of what I’ll to refer to as the “sibling phenomenon”, where one might criticize his or her brother or sister and never receive any kind of backlash, or even a slight turning of society’s collective head. Whereas if a non-family member were to do the same, and you’d better watch out!
I was a cancer patient, I am a cancer survivor, and I am a physician who treats cancer patients, so listen up, brothers and sisters!
I am going to detail my own emotions from those first two weeks of living the cancer life, and then I’ll explain which ones were mature or useful, and which ones were, well, less than ideal. I’ll discuss what I had and have found to be good ways of dealing with those thoughts, and how to psych yourself up to wage war on…well…yourself.
No one chooses to have cancer, but we can choose how we respond to having this disease.
Shock and Fear
The very first thought I had after hearing of my cancer diagnosis was “Jesus, this is it.” I had always just correlated the word or thought of “cancer” with death, or at least with the physical portrayal of a stereotypical patient, complete with bald head, ashen gray or yellow skin, sunken cheeks, and a drawn, gauntly thin frame.
I was afraid of not only death, but of not fulfilling my own expectations of what life would be like. I feared not only the unknown nature and finality of death, but of not getting to live and grow to know my future family. What was I going to be? What was I going to accomplish? Would my parents have been proud?
But I soon realized that fear is a wasted emotion in this circumstance. This was not a “fight or flight” situation where fear would provide me with an adrenaline rush and super-strength to avoid impending doom. I had sufficient warning, and I was soon told what the treatment course would entail and the side effects to expect. Fear would just be syphoning energy from me that would be better used elsewhere.
Of course, being afraid of cancer and the implications it brings is normal, and to be expected, quite frankly. But since when is normal any fun!?
Frustration and Anger
Fear was soon replaced with frustration and anger. Why me? Of all of the teenagers and people in the world, why was I having to deal with this disease? I was angry with God for allowing this to happen. I was frustrated that I’d have to drop out of school and pissed off that my college experience would be marred by being a cancer patient.
I wanted to be partying and spending time with my friends and having fun. I did not want to be worrying about getting to and from chemotherapy sessions, dealing with being sick, and constantly obsessing over the “what ifs” that this cancer diagnosis provokes.
Then I snapped out of it.
I realized that no matter how bad I thought my situation, there was someone else out there who made my Lymphoma look like a case of poison ivy. My faith enabled me to consider myself lucky that God thought me strong enough to put me through this challenge. I began thinking what a “normal” cancer patient might do or act, and I made it my mission in life to over-achieve at every opportunity.
Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I volunteered to speak with other cancer patients to help them cope. Instead of hiding my bald head, I intentionally avoided wearing a hat to show this cancer that I was in control, and that I would be deciding what my appearance would be. I found that my self-confidence grew exponentially, because I learned to be proud of my body and self, regardless of how cancer made it look.
I began to take the perspective of “Why NOT me?” The anger disappeared. I began to enjoy the little things in day-to-day life, and I accepted the reality of my current situation.
There is nothing wrong with asking the tough questions of God or humanity or whatever or whomever your faith dictates is bigger than yourself. Feeling sorry for yourself is normal. Being afraid and angry is normal – for a little while. But I challenge you to allow these emotions to swirl around in your head for only that…a little while.
Dealing with the physical pain and stress that cancer and its treatment entails is hard enough. Wasting energy on negative emotions and thoughts is not only pointless, but detrimental to your physical, emotional, and spiritual health. And let’s face it, at this point in your life you need all the energy you can muster!
Cancer is unique in many ways. I’ve always considered it such a cruel betrayal for our own bodies to turn against ourselves, usually through no fault of our own. There is no lesson to be learned. Cancer is not a natural consequence of past poor choices or punishment that is being fairly, or even unfairly, handed down. Cancer just plain sucks. But once you have it, it’s done.
Sure, anyone is allowed to wallow in their own pity party for a time. But I will bet that this will not be enjoyable, and is certainly not advantageous in any way. There is no point complaining or whining about it. Instead, take the opportunity to inspire others. Volunteer to talk with newly-diagnosed patients, or just simply smile.
You’d be surprised how being a nice, pleasant patient will both make others want to help and inspire patients to do the same. And please, please, accept the help of those who offer it!
Appreciate Your Cancer Team
Remember to appreciate your caregivers and treatment team. Seriously, let’s challenge each other to truly appreciate the caregivers out there! Every cancer patient needs that one person to vent or rant to, without the fear of judgement or disappointment. But don’t take your negative thoughts and feelings out on them. God knows they will take it.
And although they will assure you that they are not offended by your complaining or blame you for yelling at them or throwing the Ensure carton at them, they are every bit in it with you.
The world has its share of cancer patients. I challenge you to be a “good” cancer patient. What is a “good” cancer patient, you may ask? Well, for one, being a cancer patient does not equate you to being a “hero.” And I’m sure very few of us ever feel like heroes. We did not ask for this, nor did we volunteer for it. We don’t have a choice in having cancer and in most cases, undergoing treatment for, cancer.
A “hero” is a person who perseveres or succeeds in a situation, generally while directly helping others, in a way in which the majority of people, if placed in the same circumstance, would not. A “good” cancer patient, like a hero, navigates the journey through cancer in a way that most would not.
And it’s not easy. In fact, it will likely be the most difficult obstacle you’ve ever faced. But remember, nothing worth accomplishing is ever easy. There is no shame in being a “regular” or average cancer patient. But again, where’s the fun in that?
In closing, as a newly-diagnosed cancer patient, you can expect many negative emotions, thoughts, and feelings. This is normal, and we cannot be faulted for experiencing them. However, I challenge you to respond to these feelings in a way that inspires others to do the same. Put on a smile.
Thank those who are helping you. Help others. You will find that having a positive attitude and perspective will increase the likelihood of you enjoying a positive outcome from cancer treatment.
Be A Good Cancer Patient
And most of all, be a “good” cancer patient, if not a hero! I wrote the following poem the eve of my stem cell transplant, in the hospital. This was 9 months after my original diagnosis, and after the recurrence of my cancer:
I feel my life will end today
For my body is empty and cold
The mirror reflects as I wither away
As my future is left, untold
Why do you plague me with such dread
Do I really deserve this scorn?
But God just smiled and bowed his head
For he knew that I would learn
And then I awoke from my life-long dream
It dawning that he’d not planned my demise
For he knew in the future which He had seen
That from this darkness I would soon rise
And from that depth I began to climb
It wasn’t long ‘till I saw the sun
My body was warmed by the succulent shine
And I knew that my life had begun
Happy birthday to me! What better place to celebrate your birthday? This was two weeks after my stem cell transplant. January, 1997
My wife, Katie and I, on our honeymoon. June, 2001