The Waiting Game

 

“Of all the hardships a person had to face none was more punishing than the simple act of waiting.”

Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns

 

In this powerful quote Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner and several other internationally acclaimed novels, speaks of the pain of waiting. Throughout my cancer journey waiting, along with uncertainty and fear, have been my constant unwelcome companions. Of course there have been the endless hours spent in doctor’s waiting rooms and waiting in diagnostic imaging departments for CT scans, MRIs and a multitude of tests. I can’t believe how accustomed I’ve become to these environments and to the monotonous routine that they now so strongly represent.

I close my eyes and I can visualize the waiting room chairs, the reception desk, sometimes a television for distraction, and always the tired and worried looks on the other patients’ faces. Some attempt to engage in small talk with other patients or with the caregivers who have accompanied them, others sit silently or try to read or distract themselves with electronic devices. My waiting time at the outpatient clinic at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre is typically half an hour to an hour. It’s common knowledge that Calgary is in dire need of a new cancer centre, as the Baker Centre is more than thirty years old and way over capacity with the volume of patients it now must serve.

waiting room

My memories of waiting for chemotherapy sessions in the late winter and early spring of 2012 are still extremely vivid in my mind. I can laugh now, but at my first appointment I was worried that some of the veteran chemotherapy patients might be able to tell that I was a newbie. They would ascertain that I looked too healthy and had all of my hair! When I arrived, I noticed that the people around me seemed to have many types and stages of cancer; what is more, a good number of them exhibited full heads of hair. After a short wait of approximately 15 minutes, a nurse led my mother and I into the Baker Centre’s large daycare treatment area. My heart beat faster as we reached my assigned space and I settled into a recliner by the window. The nurse explained what she was doing as she inserted my IV line and then attached some anti-nausea medication in preparation for the potent cancer-fighting drug, carboplatin.

As unpleasant as waiting for physical examinations and chemotherapy appointments can be, for many cancer patients it’s anticipating a future over which they have little control that seems so much more ominous and stressful. I live with the constant pressure of waiting for outcomes that I cannot completely control. When I was originally diagnosed with endometrial and ovarian cancer three years ago, I was referred to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre where my case was reviewed by the Gynecologic Oncology Tumour Board. This team of doctors and specialized pathologists reviews all new referrals to ensure correct diagnosis and to recommend the best treatment plan. Almost instantly I became the patient of one of Western Canada’s most renowned pelvic cancer surgeons, Dr. Prafull Ghatage.

hourglassMy first consultation with Dr. Ghatage now seems like a lifetime ago. In a few months I’m scheduled for another routine checkup at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. It’s essential that I be monitored regularly for a possible recurrence or any signs of malignancy; ovarian cancer has a notoriously high recurrence rate. Many women with the disease face at least one recurrence within five years of their first diagnoses. Without resorting to an abundance of medical jargon, I’ve been diagnosed with stage IIIC2 adenocarcinoma of the uterus and stage IC adenocarcinoma of the ovary. As I await my next appointment on February 10, 2015, the encouraging news is that I’m currently in remission—at least I am to my knowledge—and my chances of a complete cure are better the longer I remain in this state. The Canadian Cancer Society defines remission as a decrease in or disappearance of signs and symptoms of cancer. In partial remission, some, but not all, signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared. In complete remission, all signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared, although cancer still may be in the body. According to Ovarian Cancer Canada, 80 per cent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer will achieve remission.

However, it is unknown if the cancer will come back or how long before it comes back. These unanswered questions linger in every woman’s mind that has ever been diagnosed with cancer and all we can do is wait for the resolution. In the meantime, I’ve made my health my primary focus—a nutritious diet, an appropriate exercise routine and getting enough sleep have never been more important. Obviously I’m careful to take my daily medication; I’ve been prescribed the drug Megace (generic name megestrol), it has been known to reduce recurrence rates in uterine, ovarian and breast cancer patients. Finally, hope and my steadfast determination to live each moment of my life fully and completely remain my allies in this dreadful waiting game. “How much of human life is lost in waiting,” wrote the 19th century transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. As I continue to face the many realities of cancer in the 21st century I can strongly relate to this long ago observation.

timepiece

 

 

The Blame Game: Guilt and Cancer

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2014 is to more effectively manage the guilt or shame that I sometimes feel concerning my cancer. It seems unfair considering all the other unpleasant emotions that cancer triggers, but guilt in its various forms is a constant enemy waiting to attack cancer survivors and their caregivers.

It’s been well documented that many cancer survivors have feelings of shame or guilt, particularly around the notion that they may have played some part in causing their cancer. Certain cancers, for example lung cancer, have especially strong stigmas attached to them in this regard. “He smoked heavily, so what did he expect?” When it comes to cancer we often subtly, or not so subtly, blame the person for his or her disease. Friends, family members or strangers often do this unwittingly, in an attempt to rationalize a painful reality and to cope with it better themselves. Human psychology being what it is, whenever we can construct an explanation for something, it makes us feel a little better. Experts, such as renowned scientist and author Jon Kabat-Zinn, emphasize that blame only robs an individual with cancer of the present by directing their attention on the past—it undermines them when they most need to focus their energies and face the reality of having a life-threatening disease.

guilt

While gynecological cancers don’t involve the same degree of stigma as lung cancer or some other forms of the disease, I’ve still experienced times when I’ve felt that I might be to blame for my illness. Leading up to my diagnosis, I was having symptoms that could indicate uterine and/or ovarian cancer and my doctor recommended surgery. At first I was somewhat hesitant due to fear and denial of my situation. I had never been hospitalized or had any type of surgery before, now I was being informed that I should have a total abdominal hysterectomy as well as the removal of my right ovary. My gynecologist had to “twist my arm” to a certain degree. I ultimately consented to the procedure when I realized that it was in my best interest. What would the outcome have been if I had chosen to have the operation sooner? Would my endometrial cancer be less advanced, lower than the stage III that I am currently diagnosed with? Would it have had time to spread to my lymph nodes and affect my right ovary?

There is no way to determine these things for certain, but I do regret my hesitancy to take action. Everyone has done things that they wish they hadn’t. My argument is that there is a difference between taking responsibility for the consequences of actions and feeling like you deserve to be blamed. 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. No doubt in such circumstances changing certain behaviours may improve your health. However, allowing yourself to absorb blame and feel shame will almost certainly make matters worse. Instead, it’s better for cancer survivors not to let shame and guilt keep them from moving forward, getting the support they need and deserve, and living in a healthier way. Shame and guilt are unnecessary burdens to carry. From everything that’s known about the emotions and health, acceptance and forgiveness are what we need to cultivate and enhance healing, not self-condemnation and self-blame.

Guilt-2

This having been said, there are numerous other ways in which guilt manifests itself in the lives of cancer survivors. Guilt takes sinister forms for us, like feeling shame for the envy we feel about those who are in good health; feeling guilty about the disproportionate amount of attention we receive, and even guilt about surviving cancer when so many others have not. I remember feeling guilt-ridden when I was undergoing cancer treatment and unforeseen complications occurred. My condition ultimately caused me to spend over a month and a half in Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre. As my primary caregiver, my mother had her life completely turned upside down. Although she is semi-retired, she took a leave of absence from her part-time job and rearranged her daily schedule to visit me. My brother also took some hours off work at the law firm where he practices. Suleika Jaouad, a young American fighting leukemia, describes herself in similar circumstances:

“I feel guilty when I start feeling sick or get a fever. I want to apologize, for I know I will soon make the life of my loved ones hell. My mother will have to drive four hours in the middle of the night to take me to the hospital in New York City. Family will have to take sick days from work. After long days at the office, my boyfriend will spend night after night sleeping between two hospital chairs. My father will “hold down the fort” at home (this translates to lonely nights spent worrying by himself and feeling very far away from my hospital room).”

Finally, as I’ve alluded to, some cancer patients experience the discomfort of what is termed survivor guilt. I’m aware through various sources that I’ve outlived several of my former cancer ward roommates. Perhaps it’s only human nature to occasionally wonder why I’ve been fortunate enough to achieve remission, when so many women diagnosed with my form of cancer have lost their agonizing battle.

Shame

For more information regarding guilt and cancer or to seek professional advice contact the psychosocial oncology department at your regional cancer centre or reach out to other cancer resources in your community.

God Bless the Child

When I go to appointments at the cancer centre I notice that I’m surrounded by women in my own fortysomething age range. However, many of them are not patients themselves, they are there as caregivers and are accompanying a cancer stricken elderly parent. Sometimes as I walk in with my support person, my healthy and totally independent 72-year-old mother, I feel bitter and confused at our obvious role reversal. All at once I’m aware of how much the relationships in my life have changed since my diagnosis. Cancer has made me more dependent on family members, a multitude of health care workers and a number of government agencies. Throughout my ordeal there have been lonely days when I’ve yearned for a larger family or an abundance of close friends. Above all having a chronic illness has shown me what it’s truly like to be forced to rely on other individuals and revealed to me who is willing to stand by me in my time of greatest need.

Sometimes music helps me to deal with certain emotions that I’m feeling. Well before I was diagnosed with cancer or felt its harsh social and financial impact, God Bless the Child by the legendary Billie Holiday was one of my favorite songs. But lately both the powerful lyrics and her exquisite delivery keep going through my mind. God Bless the Child extols self-reliance while it condemns those who ignore us, repudiate us or treat us as inferior when we are unable to be self-sufficient. In her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues Holiday indicated an argument with her mother over money led to the song. Apparently during the argument she said the line “God bless the child that’s got his own.” Anger over the incident led her to turn that line into a starting point for a song, which she worked out in conjunction with Arthur Herzog. In his 1990 book Jazz Singing, Will Friedwald describes the work as “sacred and profane” as it references the Bible while indicating that religion seems to have little or no effect in making people treat each other better. Sadly, Billie Holiday was only 44 when she died—she had fought a long, terrible battle with alcohol and drug addiction.

God Bless the Child

Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr.

Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Money, you’ve got lots of friends
Crowding round the door
When you’re gone, spending ends
They don’t come no more
Rich relations give
Crust of bread and such
You can help yourself
But don’t take too much
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own
He just worry ’bout nothin’
Cause he’s got his own

Image

Billie Holiday