When Having Cancer Means a Fresh Start

Psychologists have observed that a cancer diagnosis is for most people a major life event, mentally we tend to divide our life into before and after we had cancer. For me it’s definitely been like that, in many ways I feel as if I was given a clean slate or a new beginning. First, becoming ill with cancer has required me to both analyze and redefine the relationships I have with those closest to me. In many cases I’ve had to set new boundaries, as I will no longer tolerate toxic or unhealthy relationships. Some personal and business relationships that I had before are finished, as a rule I no longer remain in contact with people who were unable or unwilling to support me throughout my cancer journey. 

Now that I’m a cancer survivor, I’ve become more sensitive to the characteristics of toxic people and how they mistreat others. I choose to avoid them whenever possible, meanwhile I set boundaries and keep my distance when I’m in situations in which I must associate with them. I recently came across a fairly accurate description of what it’s like to be in such a relationship, it can be a relative, a friend, your boss, or a work colleague. The harmful individual likely demonstrates all or some of the following behaviors:

  • Nothing you can say or do is good enough.
  • They comment on the smallest flaw or perceived imperfection.
  • They drag up your past and won’t allow you to grow or be different. 
  • They act like they are fabulous and never make mistakes.
  • They leave you feeling guilty and ashamed of who you are.
  • They are critical, controlling and don’t think about your needs.
  • They violate your boundaries and never respect no.
  • They don’t care about your feelings and they like to see you suffer.
  • It’s always about them and what they think and want and feel.

Of course, evolving relationships are just one element of my new life as a cancer survivor, I’ve been forced to abandon or reassess many of my long-term professional goals. I lost numerous clients when I was unable to work for approximately a year. By the time I had undergone several major surgeries and then struggled through chemotherapy treatment, I had realized how stressful, competitive and deadline oriented my field of freelance journalism can be. I had to make the decision to step back from the relentless demands of trying to do assignments all the time.

At first it was hard to adjust to my new normal as far as work and income are concerned, but now I often relish the freedom and the time I have to relax and enjoy other things. Of course, there are still periods when I’m extremely busy, I’ve been required to learn a great deal in recent years. It’s been said that going through a cancer diagnosis and then undergoing treatment is a learning experience equivalent to a university degree. I carry an abundance of knowledge regarding the Canadian health care system, cancer, and gynecological cancer in particular, gleaned from the terrible events that I have been through. 

Finally, the way I view myself and the world has changed enormously as well. I’ve learned by necessity how to live my life day by day, and sometimes even moment by moment.  I’m always mindful of the present and what it has to offer me, I’ve also noticed that I rarely use words like “someday” because I try to avoid talking about future plans in vague or uncertain terms. Most healthy people I know take the future for granted and think of it as something that will always be there for them. In 2012 I spent over a month and a half on Unit 42 at Calgary’s Foothills Hospital. This women’s cancer ward is predominately a place of bravery, triumph, heartbreak and tears. When I looked into some of the other patients’ eyes, I could see them begging for a future, and I understood that they would do almost anything for the gift of just a few more months in this world. As a cancer survivor I’ve discovered how precarious tomorrow really is and that you can’t always depend on someday.

New Year’s Promises

I don’t generally believe in the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve still chosen to make some promises for 2018. I’ve learned that the most important promises are the ones that I make to myself, changes I initiate in an effort to improve the quality of my life or to help nurture a sense of purpose.

I’ll begin by taking a close look at some of my relationships. Many experts argue that the most important choice you’ll ever make is the people you surround yourself with. Since my cancer diagnosis I’ve basically developed zero tolerance for having toxic people in my life. In 2018 I promise to do all that I can to eliminate the power these individuals exert over me. There are some obvious signs of a toxic person and you’ll generally recognize it when you are in such a relationship. Here are some of the common red flags:

  • Nothing you can say or do is good enough.
  • They comment on the smallest flaw or perceived imperfection.
  • They drag up your past and won’t allow you to grow or be different.
  • They act like they are fabulous and never make mistakes.
  • They leave you feeling guilty and ashamed of who you are.
  • They are critical, controlling and don’t think about your needs.
  • They leave you feeling beaten, wounded, battered bruised and torn.
  • They violate your boundaries and never respect no.
  • They don’t care about your feelings and they like to see you suffer.
  • It’s always about them and what they think and want and feel.

If you notice these signs, it’s best to cut the person out of your life completely or to at least keep them at a distance. Such individuals are capable of inflicting serious emotional and psychological harm, especially if you are in frequent contact with them over a prolonged period of time.

 

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i hear a thousand kind words about me
and it makes no difference
yet I hear one insult
and all confidence shatters

focusing on the negative

I can definitely relate to this poem which appears in the collection The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur. I promise to be less critical of myself and to focus more on why I am a special and worthwhile human being. I promise to focus on my positive qualities and the valuable contributions that I am able to make while I’m in this world. My battle with cancer has revealed to me that people often won’t love and respect you until you choose to love and respect yourself.

Finally, I promise to be more mindful in my day to day living. I’ve discovered that one of the best ways to quiet my mind and focus my attention is a technique called mindfulness. The renowned scientist and author Jon Kabat-Zinn pioneered using this method with cancer patients and other groups at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Mindfulness is basically just a way of paying attention, a way of awakening our minds and being present in the here and now. With principles found in Buddhism, mindfulness teaches us to live the moments contained in each day rather than focusing on what might lie ahead.

Acceptance and letting go are crucial components of mindfulness. A philosophy of mindfulness encourages us to come to terms with our life, even difficult experiences such as a cancer diagnosis. Acceptance means seeing things as they actually are in the present. Mindfulness doesn’t require that you have to like your situation—you don’t necessarily have to assume a passive attitude toward suffering or life’s unfairness. However, you must come to terms with things as they are and acknowledge them, whether it’s a diagnosis of cancer or the possibility of its recurrence.

The Problem with Cancer and the Warrior Ethic

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the controversial, yet commonly held, notion that a cancer diagnosis is a war or a battle that must be won. Doesn’t this philosophy place the burden almost entirely on us patients? If we die or if our cancer ultimately recurs it’s because we didn’t think positively enough or we weren’t strong enough to will it away. I know of plenty of women who’ve succumbed to ovarian cancer and they were among the bravest and most resolute people on Earth. In my opinion, a person’s cancer outcome will depend almost exclusively on medical science. Of course, there are always certain unknown factors or variables—what we sometimes refer to as chance. I’ve learned to face the reality that much of what occurs in terms of my cancer is beyond my individual control, no matter how strong or determined I try to be.

terry-fox-determination

When I was first diagnosed, an iconic image associated with cancer kept going through my mind. I closed my eyes and I could see one of Canada’s most legendary and revered figures, Marathon of Hope runner Terry Fox. I can vividly remember Fox from the photographs and TV clips of my early adolescent years. He continues to represent a certain type of heroism to me, and his legacy offers proof that one person can change the world in the face of tremendous adversity. Nevertheless, it was beyond the young Fox’s control, that his cancer returned and he was forced to stop his Marathon of Hope. In the end, he received multiple chemotherapy treatments and even experimental interferon treatments; in spite of everything, the disease continued to spread. Terry Fox died on June 28, 1981, with his family by his side. My point is that even the heroes among us don’t have it within their power to simply will cancer away.

Well-known screenwriter and producer Josh Friedman was recently diagnosed with kidney cancer, he writes eloquently about the warrior mentality in a personal essay he authored for Time magazine. “Cancer doesn’t give a damn how tough you are,” he argues. “Cancer doesn’t care if you stared down the North Koreans like John McCain, or won the Tour De France like Lance Armstrong.”

Friedman is adamant that patients shouldn’t feel a burden to be brave or to be victorious in some kind of ongoing battle with their disease. “You don’t battle cancer. You don’t fight it. If cancer wants you it sneaks into your room at night and just takes you. It doesn’t care if you’re John Wayne or John McCain.”

“The tough guy narrative is seductive,”  Friedman reminds his readers. “It suggests we have control over our fate, that we can will cancer away. These are lies we tell ourselves. And for some patients that’s helpful. It gets them through the day. For them, it’s a useful tool. But courageousness is a standard that no sick person should feel like they have to meet.”

One popular theory that makes me especially angry is one that links specific personality types to an increased risk of getting cancer. “The Type C Connection: The Behavioral Links to Cancer and Your Health,” argues that the personality traits of some people make them more prone to cancer. Typically, “Type C” individuals are the antithesis of warriors: They are unassertive people-pleasers who repress their emotions.

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Modern researchers have largely debunked the idea that negative emotions heighten an individual’s susceptibility to developing cancer, or that maintaining a positive outlook can stave off cancer’s return or delay its progression. I agree with the majority of oncologists and cancer researchers who argue that there is no evidence to support the idea that personality can influence the growth of malignant cells. There is no cancer for which attitude can halt the progression of disease. Healthy people may think that if they are diagnosed with cancer they will be treated quickly and then all they’ll need to survive is a positive attitude and a fighting spirit. They are wrong.

A recent article in the Washington Post bore the straightforward headline: “It doesn’t take a warrior to beat cancer. It takes a treatment that works.” The author shares his opinion that people shouldn’t think that their cancer outcome is primarily in their hands. Whether a person returns to a life that is cancer-free will depend on so many things that are out of their control. It will depend on the type of cancer they have, how early it was caught, how quickly they get the treatment they need, how well their body responds to the treatment, how skilled their doctors are, how well oncologists understand their type of cancer, their underlying health, their genetic make up etc. It will also depend, in part, on how lucky they are.

The Etiquette of Cancer

I’ve been living with cancer for six years now, having been through three abdominal cancer surgeries, five rounds of chemotherapy as well as countless scans and procedures, I’ve become deeply aware of the “etiquette of cancer.” Or the lack thereof. Etiquette has everything to do with situation, context, timing, individuals and circumstances—cancer etiquette is the same. I can’t offer any concrete rules, only suggestions and advice about how to communicate when the subject you’re dealing with is cancer. Perhaps most importantly you should be authentic and true to your relationship. Essentially the person hasn’t changed and wants to be treated as you always have. He or she is still that special someone in your life, with cancer, for the time being.

teacup-etiqette

 

Respect the Person With Cancer’s Privacy

One important area of etiquette that was sometimes breached during my diagnosis and treatment was respect for my privacy as a cancer patient. Of course, I won’t name people specifically, but there were one or two family acquaintances who took it upon themselves to spread the news of my illness. Please don’t share cancer information unless you know you have permission from the individual. Don’t use telephone calls, emails, social media, newsletters or bulletins to comment about a person without their specific consent. This rule is especially important when it comes to something as intensely personal as one’s health or a cancer diagnosis.

 

Practice the “Ring Theory” of Kvetching

Recently a technique has gained attention for coping with a major life crisis, such as a serious illness.  It’s called the ring theory of kvetching, so named by the psychologist Susan Silk, writing in the LA Times in 2013. Silk drew on her experiences as a breast cancer patient. When she declined one colleague’s visit, pleading exhaustion, she was told, “This isn’t just about you.” “It’s not?” she wondered. “My breast cancer is not about me? It’s about you?” The main principle of the ring theory is that support, caring, comfort FLOWS IN. Kvetching, venting, complaining, requests for empathy, all of this only FLOWS OUT. The person or people with the illness, trauma, or other enormously challenging life situation — they get to complain outwardly to their first circle of support. The first circle of support does NOT vent — about the challenges, the loss of sleep, the emotional toll, etc. — to the person or people at the centre of the trauma.

 

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Don’t Offer Treatment Advice

When I was undergoing treatment, I can remember getting angry when people other than my cancer care team would try to give me medical information. “If I want information regarding cancer or cancer treatment, I’ll ask for it,” I thought. In the months following my cancer diagnosis I was inundated with information and advice from my medical team. Consequently, the articles from newspapers, magazines or online publications that I received from other people were annoying. For the most part these pieces were irrelevant and unnecessary. Also be careful when presenting teas, potions or homeopathic remedies to treat cancer. When some individuals gave me a gift basket with ginger and dandelion root, I didn’t bother to explain to them that these nutrients are specifically mentioned on a list oncologists give to their patients. Ginger and dandelion root do not combine well with many traditional chemotherapy drugs, and therefore patients should refrain from using them during active treatment.

 

Don’t Minimize the Diagnosis

Don’t declare, “Oh, cancer’s no big deal. My mom has had that for 20 years and is doing fine.” Remember that I’m not your mom and that any cancer is a serious issue. Even skin cancer, bladder cancer and other “minor” malignancies kill people every day. They cause suffering. They cause organ removal and disfigurement and fear and shame. I hate when people try to deny this fact or to minimize it by giving me false reassurance or by saying that I’m going to fine. The truth is I don’t know I’m going to be fine, you don’t know I’m going to be fine, even my oncologist doesn’t know what my outcome will be. Instead, I feel comforted by phrases like “I believe in you.” or “I’m pulling for you.”

 

Don’t be Judgmental or Ask for a Health History

For many cancer patients there’s nothing worse than being sick and getting advice from the healthy, because it’s almost like insinuating we did something to make this happen to us. It may be true in some cases that our lifestyle or health care choices increase the odds of getting cancer or contribute to cancer progression. However, if you cause someone with cancer to absorb blame and feel shame it will almost certainly make matters worse. Shame and guilt are unnecessary burdens to carry. From everything that’s known about the emotions and health, acceptance and forgiveness are what cancer patients need to cultivate and enhance healing, not self-condemnation or self-blame.

Finding the Resilience to Face a New Year

This is the sixth New Year that I’ve celebrated since my cancer diagnosis, and each one brings with it a mixture of hope, fear and uncertainty. For many cancer survivors watching everyone plan for the future is difficult, it can produce mixed emotions and make the dawn of a new year extremely challenging.

That’s why I’m not going to use this blog to give a lecture about New Year’s resolutions or to suggest that you make elaborate promises to yourself. I realize that living with cancer often renders such gestures trivial and that your life is probably being planned week-by-week or month-by-month. Instead I’ve chosen to share some of my favourite quotations about resilience.

I hope the meditations that I’ve selected make the beginning of another year a little less daunting for you and provide you with strength and inspiration for your cancer journey. As someone once said, life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving, but we can choose to get stronger and more resilient.

resilience-1

 

“Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.”

— Elizabeth Edwards

 

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

— Maya Angelou

 

“My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds. That in itself is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present.”

— Steve Goodier

 

“You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces—my family, my friends and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined.”

— Elizabeth Edwards

 

“Those who make us believe that anything’s possible and fire our imagination over the long haul, are often the ones who have survived the bleakest of circumstances. The men and women who have every reason to despair, but don’t, may have the most to teach us, not only about how to hold true to our beliefs, but about how such a life can bring about seemingly impossible social change.”

— Paul Rogat Loeb

Five-Year Survivor: On Reaching Another Cancer Milestone

timepiece

In just a few weeks I’ll face an emotional and bittersweet milestone, the fifth anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. Above all I’m grateful that I made it through the grueling medical treatments that I had in 2011 and 2012. There were moments when I felt so sick and physically weak from surgery or chemotherapy that I was afraid I might die. I thank God for my oncology team; they were always there and never stopped encouraging me. It turns out they were right to be optimistic about my prognosis, or at least to be confident that I could achieve remission. I’ve been in remission from ovarian cancer, a disease that many refer to as the silent killer of women, for four years now.

As my cancer anniversary approaches, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how much things have changed for me. 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.  Most of all, I’m aware of time and of the immeasurable value of each day that I’m alive. Here are some powerful meditations that I though I would share.

“I ask you to imagine that there is a bank account that credits your account each morning with $86,400. It carries over no balance from day to day. Every evening the bank deletes whatever part of the balance you failed to use during the day. What would you do? Draw out every cent, of course.

Each of us has such a bank, its name is time. Every morning, it credits you 86,400 seconds. Every night it writes off at a loss, whatever of this you failed to invest to a good purpose. It carries over no balance. It allows no overdraft. Each day it opens a new account for you. Each night it burns the remains of the day. If you fail to use the day’s deposits, the loss is yours.

There is no drawing against “tomorrow.” You must live in the present on today’s deposits. Invest it so as to get from it the utmost in happiness and health. The clock is running. Make the most of today.”

 — Marc Levy, French novelist

“It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.”

― George Harrison

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”

— Henry David Thoreau

 

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In the film Dead Poets Society Robin Williams plays an unconventional English teacher named John Keating. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes the teacher stands with his students gazing at some vintage school portraits. As they view the photographs of previous generations, this is what Keating tells the group of young men in his class:

“They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones,  just like you. Invincible,  just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things,  just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope,  just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it?   Carpe   hear it?   Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

Fresh Hope for a New Year

This is the fifth New Year that I’ve celebrated since my cancer diagnosis, and each one brings with it a mixture of hope, fear and uncertainty. For many cancer survivors watching everyone plan for the future is difficult, it can produce mixed emotions and make the dawn of a new year extremely challenging.

That’s why I’m not going to use this blog to give a lecture about New Year’s resolutions or to suggest that you make elaborate promises to yourself. I realize that living with cancer often renders such gestures trivial and that your life is probably being planned week-by-week or month-by-month. Instead I’ve chosen to share some of my favorite motivational quotations, may these compelling words make the beginning of another year a little less daunting for you and may the theme of infinite hope provide you with strength and inspiration for your cancer journey.

 

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“Remember, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

— Stephen King, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption

 

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart; I am, I am, I am.”

— Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

 

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death.”

— Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

 

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”

— Barack Obama

 

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Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

— Maya Angelou, Phenomenal Woman

 

“When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”

— Stuart Scott

 

“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.”

— Maya Angelou

 

“I’m not a dreamer, and I’m not saying this will initiate any kind of definitive answer or cure to cancer, but I believe in miracles. I have to.”

— Terry Fox