Exploring Cancer’s Realm

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds duel citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

— Susan Sontag

As a cancer survivor I often feel like I’m an outsider trying to fit into the world I once occupied, the world of the healthy and cancer free. My cancer diagnosis has caused me to view the world differently—for example many things that once seemed enormously important have lost significance and become almost trivial. I’ve discovered that physical attractiveness, material possessions and social status all matter less to me now. Not surprisingly, these things frequently seem to fade into irrelevance as I confront a life-threatening illness. The realm of cancer is teeming with complex, and sometimes even existential, topics. Healthy individuals are able to carry on with day-to-day trivialities, but I’ve had to stop in order to reflect on some of the deeper questions that others have the luxury of ignoring. Since being informed that I have cancer I’ve discovered that I can no longer defer life’s existential questions. Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? Who am I?

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Susan Sontag was an American writer and commentator on modern culture. She published essays, novels, and short stories. Sontag explored society’s attitudes toward cancer in her work Illness as Metaphor.

Regrettably, I’ve learned that our society still has misperceptions about chronic illnesses, such as cancer, and that there is still indignity for those of us living with such conditions. This legacy isn’t surprising considering the profound fear, confusion and stigma surrounding cancer for centuries. Until relatively recently the word was hardly spoken in public or said out loud. In 1978 Susan Sontag wrote the classic, and still controversial work, Illness as Metaphor. A breast cancer patient herself when she was authoring the book, Sontag argues that the metaphors and myths surrounding certain illnesses add greatly to the suffering of patients and frequently inhibit them from seeking proper treatment. By demystifying the fantasies surrounding cancer, Sontag strives to show cancer for what it is—just a disease. Cancer, she argues, is not a curse, not a punishment, certainly not an embarrassment, and it is often highly curable if good treatment is followed.

It’s no wonder that some cancer patients still choose to avoid revealing their illness to others. Some don’t want to be viewed differently. They just want to be normal, not defined by the disease. Others may choose to stay silent to protect their privacy and emotional stability. When the news broke last month that musical legend David Bowie had died at the age of 69 after an 18-month battle with cancer, fans around the world expressed not just grief but shock. Despite more than five decades on the world stage, under the glare of a public spotlight, the rock-and-roll icon managed to keep his cancer journey a secret from fans and friends alike, sharing it only with a handful of people in his inner circle.

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Sometimes when people are diagnosed, they receive a lot of advice from friends, family members or others—virtually everyone has known someone with a form of the disease. Often the intentions are good, but the stories can be scary and frequently make a patient feel worse. When a sizeable network of people learned that I had been diagnosed with uterine and ovarian cancer, I received information that was both inappropriate and that increased my anxiety. I was inundated with everything from holistic remedies for cancer to stories about aunt so-and-so’s bowel cancer. Keeping a diagnosis a secret keeps these kinds of opinions away.

Ultimately when my cancer became common knowledge, there was another aspect that I found somewhat unsettling. The moment some neighbours and acquaintances learned about my illness, all of a sudden it wasn’t really about me. To a large extent their focus became trying to make sure that my mother, who was in the role of my caregiver, was okay. She had a reliable network that was concerned about her and that wanted to make certain that she wasn’t becoming too overwhelmed by the situation. I don’t resent the support that was provided to my mom, but at the time I remember being a little envious. It made me more keenly aware that I don’t possess a large number of close friends myself; it also became slightly harder for me to focus on my own emotional issues and needs.

In a League of Your Own: Why Every Cancer Patient is Different

I recently received some grim news regarding a close acquaintance with advanced breast cancer. After achieving about one year of remission, her doctors have informed her that her cancer has metastasized to her lungs. Apparently her current prognosis is extremely poor and oncologists have indicated that her disease is expected to progress to the terminal stage. I have to acknowledge that I have a certain degree of difficulty coping with circumstances such as this. Psychologically I accumulate unnecessary anxiety as I compare myself to other cancer patients. When I hear of bad outcomes, I keep asking myself if I’ll be next.

One of the psychological aspects of having ovarian cancer is fear of recurrence. Although I’ve been in remission for about two years now, I remain alarmed that when my cancer was diagnosed it was fairly advanced. The statistics reveal that recurrence rates are notoriously high for my type and stage of cancer. Throughout my personal cancer journey I’ve noticed that this fear of recurrence is heightened by another phenomenon, the tendency to compare my cancer to other people’s experience with the disease. For example, I’ll sometimes remind myself that if my disease follows the path that it does with most women I’ll encounter at least one recurrence within five years of my initial diagnosis.

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There are few analogies that can accurately convey such feelings of dread to those who haven’t experienced them. Some cancer survivors have compared living with the disease to crossing a battlefield and watching your comrades die gruesomely while you dodge the bullets. Personally there have been moments when I’ve felt a sense of doom, it’s as if I’m a death row inmate, but with no certainty of when my execution will actually occur.

I have some extremely important advice to give to myself and to anyone else being treated for cancer.

1. Resist the temptation to compare the disease in your body to what is happening to other people fighting cancer, even if your condition seems highly similar.

2. Don’t dwell on statistics or the possibility of recurrence.

For instance, most women with ovarian cancer do have at least one relapse within five years of being diagnosed, but that standard rate of recurrence won’t necessary happen to me. The reality is that medical science has proven that all cancer patients are unique. What’s more, because cancer statistics are based on large groups of people, they cannot be used to predict exactly what will happen to you. Everyone is different. Treatments and how people respond to treatment can differ greatly. A well-known American cancer survivor, Joanna Montgomery, chronicles her experiences of treatment, motherhood and marriage in a personal blog called It’s Cancer, Baby. As Montgomery heavily underscored in one of her online articles, we are all individuals.

“The truth is that every single person’s cancer is different —even those diagnosed as the same type and stage —because that cancer exists in a unique human body unlike no other, with a unique life history and genealogy. I’ve met people with cancer of a lesser stage than mine who didn’t make it, while I’ve just as frequently met survivors who dealt with higher stages of cancer decades in the past and are still going strong. There’s no algorithm that will determine which of us will make it and which of us won’t. There are endless factors at play, and cancer is unpredictable and constantly morphing.”

The stress and anxiety generated from trying to predict what will happen to you or from scrutinizing other cancer patients might actually be detrimental to your health and the healing process. Medical science acknowledges a connection between our thoughts and emotions and certain physical aspects of healing, such as our immune system. The power of the mind-body connection has been widely accepted by mainstream medicine since the 1960s or 1970s. During those decades, a great deal of research in the field of biofeedback and self-regulation showed that human beings could learn to control many physiological functions. Even those ones that had previously been thought involuntary, such as heart rate and blood pressure, were found to be at least partially under our control. A number of pioneering studies drew on relaxation, meditation and yoga.

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The power we possess over own bodies and our personal health and the case for each of us being a unique biological organism was also established in a groundbreaking book entitled Mind as Healer, Mind as Slayer. In 1977, this book by Dr. Kenneth Pelletier helped to inspire widespread interest in mind-body interactions. Pelletier presents a variety of compelling evidence that the mind is a major participant in illness and that the mind can be a major factor in health as well. The majority of his case studies focused on serious chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancer.

So my recommendation if you are fighting cancer is to maintain faith in your body’s ability to heal itself. Even more importantly remember that your cancer journey is unlike anyone else’s and that your outcome may be radically different from those in similar medical circumstances. You are special, your body and spirit are both unique, so don’t assume you can predict the course your cancer will take simply by observing the disease in others.

It’s All So Trivial: Emotional Isolation and Cancer Patients

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In my introductory blog post, Survivorship 101, I defined the concept of cancer survivorship. Survivorship refers to the physical, psychological, social, and economic issues of living with cancer, from diagnosis until the end of life. In this post I would like to delve deeper into some of the social and psychological aspects of having cancer. For example, a major cancer diagnosis often causes you to view the world differently—things that once seemed enormously important may lose significance and become almost trivial. Personally, I’ve discovered that physical attractiveness, material possessions and social status all matter less to me now. These things frequently seem to fade into irrelevance as I confront a life-threatening illness. Meanwhile, my relationships with other people, discovering ways that I can make a difference in the world and learning more about the essence of who I am are currently at the forefront of my agenda and have an extremely high priority to me at the moment.

Like many people dealing with cancer I’ve sometimes felt isolated from those not going through a similar experience. Relatives, friends and acquaintances mean well, but they are unable to fully empathize or to understand certain aspects of what I am going through. Many cancer survivors will attest to the fact that there are times when they are surrounded by people and still feel very alone. This type of emotional isolation occurs when you discover that you can no longer relate to people in the same way you did before. Things that were important to you in the past are no longer important to you, and your friends and family don’t understand why you have changed so much. I’ve noticed that the books I read, the movies or television that I watch and the activities that I like to participate in have all changed a fair amount since my cancer diagnosis, so have the topics that I prefer to discuss. This transformation has affected my personal relationships and how I feel about those closest to me.

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According to the Alberta CancerBridges team, such deep-seated feelings of isolation have been well documented in the cancer care literature. There is even a term that has been created to describe this experience—it’s known as survivor loneliness. Last summer I watched a rare long-term survivor of ovarian cancer address the crowd at an Ovarian Cancer Canada fundraiser. I admire her ability to speak eloquently in public about her decade long struggle. Throughout her speech she had nothing but praise for her friends and family, I could sense that she is profoundly grateful for the unconditional love and support that they have given her over the years. But paradoxically, the former nurse also characterized her personal battle with cancer as a “long lonely journey.” Survivor loneliness can take many forms and occur for a number of reasons. It’s typically felt as a profound sense of isolation from the people around you. As one battles cancer, this sense of isolation can arise from a feeling that you are alone in your awareness of mortality.

Since my cancer diagnosis two years ago, I’ve been required to think about my mortality. I’ve also had to tend to many practical matters that I didn’t anticipate that I’d have to deal with until I was much older. While everyone around me carries on with their lives, I’ve had to stop and reflect on some of the deeper questions of life that others have the luxury of ignoring. Individuals diagnosed with cancer often find themselves contemplating existential questions. Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? Who am I? These issues are brought to the forefront of your mind when facing a potentially deadly disease. Sometimes I feel frustrated by the fact that most things that my friends and family care about seem fairly trivial to me now. For example, they got cut off in traffic, they had a disagreement with a coworker or their favorite esthetics studio is getting ready to raise its prices.

Cancer experts and psychologists generally agree that the most effective way to combat isolation and survivor loneliness is to connect with other people who are undergoing a similar ordeal. There are numerous support groups and organizations throughout Canada specializing in the extremely complex social and emotional aspects of cancer.

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Cancer shakes your illusions of immortality. It robs you of the sense of invincibility and innocence that once protected you. But what replaces that feeling is infinitely more valuable: a new awareness and a mature understanding of both life and death.

From Picking Up the Pieces: Moving Forward After Surviving Cancer
by Sherri Magee and Kathy Scalzo

Survivorship 101

My health had always been tremendously good, and then one afternoon in November 2011 I received an unexpected diagnosis of both uterine and ovarian cancer. In hindsight words such as devastating, terrifying, and life-altering seem inadequate to describe the magnitude of that experience—my daily existence was shattered. Sometimes it’s still as if I’m trapped in an appalling dream, a nightmarish reality that to date has encompassed three major abdominal surgeries and five cycles of chemotherapy. As with countless other cancer survivors I have asked “Why me?” while I’ve struggled to find anything positive about living with such an affliction. I have accepted the likelihood that my life may never be exactly the same; I must adjust to a “new normal” as day by day I contend with the consequences of an insidious, spiteful, and often fatal disease.

In this blog I will be writing about various aspects of my cancer journey. I have chosen to call it The Teal Diaries, since teal is the colour used to represent awareness of gynecological cancers. While pink ribbons are strongly associated with breast cancer, significantly fewer people realize that ovarian cancer survivors, and those who wish to support them, wear teal ribbons. If there is less public awareness regarding ovarian and endometrial  cancer, I suspect that it’s because they are both less prevalent and have a significantly higher mortality rate than breast cancer.

I’ve waged my relentless battle for over a year now, I currently seem to have the upper hand and my doctors indicate that they are cautiously optimistic regarding my prognosis. Since the beginning of my cancer experience there have been moments of epiphany and numerous opportunities for personal reflection. Being that this is my initial blog post, I want to share a few of the survivorship lessons that I’ve experienced over the past fourteen months. According to professionals in the cancer field, survivorship is living with and beyond cancer. Survivorship covers the physical, psychosocial, and economic issues of cancer, from diagnosis until the end of life. This is what I’ve learned so far.

You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only option you have left.

I certainly don’t aspire to become a legend like  Terry Fox or to be anything resembling a saint or a cancer hero. But still, I’ve discovered inner qualities and personal strengths I never appreciated or properly acknowledged in myself. Subjected to the ultimate test, I’ve sometimes shocked myself with my capacity to overcome adversity and to confront physical pain and suffering. As one of the approximately 17,000 Canadian women living with ovarian cancer, I obviously know firsthand how it impacts a life. For survivors there is tremendous emotional pressure, along with social and financial turmoil.

There are moments when you have the impression that your world is spinning violently out of control. The fundamental paradox is that I’m often able to feel a sense of power, combined with courage and self-assurance. It’s as if I’m standing in life’s Category 5 hurricane and remaining resolute, steadfast and unbroken. “Okay cancer, you ruthless bastard, attack me with all the intensity you’ve got! I will still transcend you and the pure malevolence that you represent,” I sometimes tell myself. Some pundits would consider this type of resolve impressive, especially as demonstrated by a socially introverted, physically petite woman, such as myself.

Appreciate the flowers in your own backyard.

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I reached an unparalleled low physically and emotionally last year, during the spring of 2012. By May there were potentially life-threatening complications due to my rigorous cancer treatments. Vomiting and in pain, I was transported to the emergency room through early rush hour traffic. It was a bright May morning when I entered the doors of Calgary’s largest medical centre and was admitted suffering from a bowel blockage. I acknowledge that at first I literally wanted to die rather than face what was happening. Nothing had prepared me for the invasive medical procedures that I would endure in the coming weeks or for the length of my hospitalization.

Forty-eight agonizing days elapsed, during which time I received virtually all of my nutrition through a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC or PIC line). On June 18, 2012, intestinal surgery was skillfully performed. When I awoke in the recovery room I sensed that my crisis was at last resolved. Although only half-conscious, I was filled with elation as they informed me that the procedure to correct my obstruction had been successful. The primary cause was established to be scar tissue from my previous operations and now my digestive system was expected to function normally again. Most of all, I was comforted and reassured by the fact that my cancer had not visibly metastasized to other regions of my body.

My discharge from the hospital ultimately took place on a balmy summer afternoon; the clothes I had worn nearly two months earlier felt hot and loose fitting. I was so weak from my ordeal that I struggled to walk just 10 or 20 metres, but I was in awe as I observed how the seasons had changed and nearly everything had been transformed. I can still remember the blissful journey home and my sense of anticipation during that short, but very emancipating, commute. Even the air filling my lungs was like a breath of freedom.

Upon arriving at the small bungalow where I live, something magical occurred. My eyes surveyed the backyard and the unexpected sight of poppies in full bloom completely overwhelmed me. It was as if I were seeing them for the first time. I remain inspired by their exquisiteness, vaguely encouraged by the realization that their brilliant orange petals and intricately designed purple centres will never appear ordinary to me again. I’m certain that from now on, I’ll be eagerly awaiting the phenomenal appearance of the poppies each June!

Learn how to embrace the new pretty.

There are literally thousands of magazine articles, journal studies and online resources devoted to the topic of sexuality and women’s cancers. How a woman copes and deals with the changes to her body are unique for each survivor, of course such factors as age and relationship status come into play. Studies have confirmed that the most prevalent issue for those diagnosed with uterine or ovarian cancer is a sense of profound loss. Psychologically I continue to mourn the demise of my reproductive organs and the loss of what I always perceived as an impeccably strong and healthy body.

Throughout my cancer ordeal I have felt moments of contempt, occasionally mixed with rage. I find it easy to despise a culture that is inclined to objectify women—placing intense pressure on us to possess a perfect body. I’ve become acutely sensitive to the media, the advertising industry and to what I believe are ridiculous and superficial standards of female beauty.

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There have been circumstances when I’ve waged war using humour or an “in your face” attitude. During my convalescence from one of my cancer surgeries I recall being engaged in a discussion with my mother while sorting through a stack of mail. I paused as I unearthed a catalogue for a major Canadian department store, cringing at the sight of the cover. Predictably it was flaunting an image of a model with an unblemished face and body. The New Pretty, the caption breathlessly announced. All of a sudden I grinned mischievously, as in one defiant move I turned and flashed my scarred and stapled abdomen. “I’ll show them the new pretty,” I boldly declared.