The Cancer Playlist

For almost my entire adult life, I’ve had a deep and personal relationship with sound because I know how precious it is. Since my late twenties, I’ve been deaf in my right ear, the doctors think my sudden hearing loss was probably a rare side effect from an inner ear infection. Long before my cancer diagnosis I would miss a lot in casual conversation, so I gradually learned to read body language, lips or other important cues. I would manoeuvre my way through social settings as friends and family took part in choreographed dances to get on my “good” side. Unfortunately, when I became a cancer patient, I learned that many treatments damage the inner ear resulting in some degree of hearing loss. This is a possible complication even for oncology patients who initially have quite good hearing, but for some patients like myself the risks are substantially higher. For us cancer treatment often results in additional damage in one or both ears. Inevitably, chemotherapy drugs combined with surgery and months of hospitalization have rendered my pre-existing auditory condition worse than before.

Although I’m partially deaf, I refuse to let my circumstances prevent me from enjoying the benefits of music. I still listen to music as best I can and this has been especially comforting throughout my cancer journey. Like almost everyone I have an iTunes library, I frequently enjoy listening to the songs using over the ear wireless headphones. My ovarian cancer playlist currently includes the following tracks.

  • Rainy Days and Mondays
    The Carpenters and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Handle With Care
    The Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1
  • (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman
    Aretha Franklin Love Songs
  • Stand By Me
    John Lennon – Gimme Some Truth
  • Imagine
    John Lennon – Gimme Some Truth
  • The Circle Game
    Joni Mitchell – Hits
  • For All We Know
    The Carpenters and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Bridge Over Troubled Water
    Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits
  • What a Wonderful World
    Louis Armstrong – The Ultimate Collection 
  • Over the Rainbow
    The Very Best of Judy Garland 

Some cancer patients choose to engage in music therapy which is the use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals. These patients are guided by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program. Formal music therapy was defined and first used by the United States War Department in 1945. It helped military service members recovering in Army hospitals. The therapy may include listening, singing, playing instruments, or composing music. However, musical skills or talents are not required to participate, nor is perfect hearing.

Today music therapy interventions are used in a variety of healthcare and educational settings. Studies have shown that such therapies may help patients in many ways, including psychologically, emotionally, physically, spiritually, cognitively and socially. A short list of the potential benefits includes:

  • Lowering blood pressure.
  • Improving memory. 
  • Enhanced communication and social skills. 
  • Self-reflection. Observing your thoughts and emotions. 
  • Reducing muscle tension. 
  • Self-regulation. Developing skills to manage your thoughts and emotions. 
  • Increasing motivation. 
  • Managing pain. 
  • Increasing joy. 

I recognized many years ago that music helps me to deal with certain emotions that I’m feeling, this became even more apparent to me after I was diagnosed with cancer and experienced some of its devastating social and emotional impacts. For example, God Bless the Child by the legendary Billie Holiday is one of my favorite songs, but lately both the powerful lyrics and her exquisite delivery keep going through my mind. I like that 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 the renowned vocalist to turn that 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 composition 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.

What I Know About Cancer Survivorship

It’s been over ten years since my cancer diagnosis and there are still times when I ask myself soul searching questions about this disease, especially its impact on society and on individuals. A lot of what I’ve written about in this blog involves the terms that we use when we talk about cancer, take survivor and survivorship for example. Although these expressions seem to be embedded in the cancer lexicon, there is still confusion regarding their meaning. I personally believe the terms survivor and survivorship encompass the following truths:

1. You are always a cancer survivor.

“Cancer survivorship begins at diagnosis and covers the physical, psychosocial, and economic issues of cancer, from diagnosis until the end of life.” 

As a woman who has fought gynaecological cancer, I’ve come to accept this commonly held view of cancer survivorship. First I accept the all-encompassing notion that’s presented in this definition because cancer does impact every single aspect of a person’s life. In retrospect, I also believe that my survivorship began that moment in my gynecologist’s office when he told me the devastating details of my pathology report. Simply being diagnosed with cancer made me a survivor, from this perspective I didn’t have to wait until after I had completed a full year of treatment or until I was officially in remission. Before the surgeons at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre cut into my body, and before the first drop of chemotherapy solution ran ominously into my veins, I was already a survivor in the eyes of the cancer community. I appreciate now that I’ll always be part of this incredible, strong and resilient group.

2. No one is less worthy of being called a cancer survivor.

The commonly accepted definition of “survivor” within the cancer community is simply a person diagnosed with cancer. So once the terrifying sentence, “I’m so sorry, the biopsy shows that you have cancer,” leaves your doctor’s lips and pierces your soul, you officially begin life as a cancer survivor. I remember my first chemotherapy treatment and how insecure I was, part of me felt like I was less of a “survivor” than some of the other cancer patients who had been fighting the disease for years. I can laugh at the situation now, but I was rather 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 for my first session, I noticed that the people around me seemed to have many types and stages of cancer—what is more, a good number of them in the waiting room exhibited full heads of hair.

3. Cancer survivorship means confronting loss.

Emotions such as fear, hopelessness and grief infiltrate the lives of cancer survivors. Most psychologists maintain that grief is a person’s normal, healthy response to a loss. Understandably, I grieved after my father died, he was only 63. But I was rather surprised to find myself experiencing similar feelings when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. As I came to terms with the devastating diagnosis, I learned firsthand that the loss that triggers grief isn’t always physical. You can experience sorrow if you or a loved one are diagnosed with a major disease or face a serious illness. It’s common to grieve the future plans you had made, or the ways life will change. Remember there is no “right” way to grieve, every cancer survivor is different. Give yourself time to experience your loss in your own way. Also understand that as a cancer survivor it’s important to make a commitment to yourself. You should make it a priority to take care of yourself emotionally, spiritually and physically.

4. Cancer survivorship is life-altering.

It’s been proven that when we are diagnosed with cancer our attention often turns away from the small and trivial distractions that surround us. Taking life for granted has become our culturally-induced default mode — we are trained to overlook the essential. As a cancer survivor I’ve ultimately been freed from this monotonous, addictive cycle. For example, I’m grateful for the oncologists who oversaw my case, especially my surgeon. I remain in awe of the fact that they literally saved my life, I also remember the nurses who were with me 24/7 in the hospital. I established a bond with several of them when life-threatening complications forced me to spend seven consecutive weeks on the cancer unit. Weeks in cancer time pass by like years, almost decades, but the magnificent oncology nursing team that I had somehow helped me pull through the agonizing eternity I found myself living .

I have a profounder awareness, one that allows me to truly appreciate the arrival of spring after a long hard winter. The sense of renewal or rebirth that is associated with spring has been heightened for me in so many ways. I appreciate the small wonders like a pair of finches building a nest in our yard and the poppies that bloom in the garden each June. Each day that I’m cancer-free is like a gift. It’s a miracle each morning when I wake up and become conscious that my disease is in remission and that I’m lying in my own bed. Sometimes I give a huge sigh of relief when I discover that I’m not in the hospital and there is no need to drive to the cancer centre for chemotherapy or a checkup.

Sometimes Life is Beautiful

Lately I’ve been finding it harder to appreciate the beauty around me, this is understandable given that I’m a cancer survivor living through a devastating global pandemic. All of us are exhausted and demoralized as we begin the third year of an ongoing international health crisis. Even in these dark times, there are several ways to forge a deeper bond with the beauty that is in this world and I’ll discuss the most important ones here. 

Experience Beauty Through Art

There’s an emerging group of professionals who employ the arts to help people heal. The new field is called creative arts therapies, and it encompasses a wide range of modes of expression including art, dance/movement, drama, music and poetry. When cancer patients undertake these activities, whether individually or with the guidance of a creative art therapist, they stand to benefit psychologically and emotionally. Recently there’s been a trend toward simple or old-fashioned crafts and hobbies such as knitting. I’ve even used adult colouring books to relax and reduce daily stress. This concept started about a decade ago with the publication of Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden. 

More recently, I decided to take my colouring hobby a step further and enrolled in an art class offered through Wellspring Calgary. I acknowledge that some of my inspiration came from Nadia Chaudhri who created some lovely works of art from her palliative care bed. The Introduction to Watercolour course that I participated in had to be conducted online via Zoom, but I did my best as professional artist, Karin Huehold, taught about 20 online students some basic techniques. 

Experience Beauty Through Nature

I live in Canada and during the extremely long, cold winters I’m obliged to spend the majority of my time indoors, for me January and February are discouraging—sometimes almost brutal. It’s generally agreed that exposure to nature is extremely beneficial for people with cancer or other chronic illnesses, improving mood and easing anxiety, stress, and depression. Current research findings suggest that natural settings such as parks, wilderness areas, urban green spaces and gardens have the potential to improve both physical and mental health. Numerous health scholars claim that ecotherapy can promote wellness and healing. The practice is also known as green therapy, nature therapy, and earth-centered therapy.

About a decade ago, soon after I was diagnosed with cancer, I discovered a meditation technique called mindfulness. Being outdoors often helps me be mindful, I’m able to relax and to more fully appreciate the unique moment that I’m living in. Jon Kabat-Zinn pioneered using this method with cancer patients and other groups battling chronic pain or illness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as follows:

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of the present-moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation.”

Find Beauty and Strength Within

When you are diagnosed with cancer, you’ll almost certainly have moments when you sense that your world is spinning violently out of control. The fundamental paradox for me is that I’m often in situations where I 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. I 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.

Sometimes I wish that a magical force or mystic healer could transport me back to before I had cancer, but then I think that I’ve come too far and acquired too much. In the decade since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve realized how fortunate I am. I’ve been reminded that often, in our worst challenges come valuable lessons. Through facing the terrible realities of my disease, I’ve learned to be more conscious of living in the moment. I’ve learned it’s all right to pause in our hyper-accelerated culture, I’m allowed to take a break when I’m feeling worn-out. My new normal has also taught me I don’t need material things to make me happy and that family and friends are to be treasured. But perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve acquired so far during my cancer journey is that life is all too fleeting.

COVID’s Second Bitter Winter

Omicron, the rapidly spreading COVID variant that seems to be more successful at evading the body’s immune response, is enough to break anyone’s spirt two years into the pandemic. But for many cancer patients it’s been like a punch in the face followed by a hard kick once we’ve hit the floor.

First, we must live with the awareness that COVID is far more dangerous for us than it is for ordinary people who aren’t dealing with a malignancy. The truth that cancer patients remain at a much higher risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 even if they are fully vaccinated, was recently verified by a small-scale study. The study, published in the journal Annals of Oncology, found that cancer patients had a 13 per cent mortality rate if they suffered a breakthrough infection. This important research was conducted by the COVID-19 and Cancer Consortium, a group of 129 research centres which have been tracking the virus’ impact on cancer patients. It’s considered to be the first study to investigate the risk levels for cancer patients who experience breakthrough cases.

The most demoralizing issue is that many individuals in government and society continue to abandon us, they treat the vulnerable or high risk as if we are inconsequential. For the past two years I’ve witnessed the casual selfishness of those who are considered healthy and able bodied. I’ve also seen cancer patients endure hardships that are far worse than what should be expected of them. Not only is there the prolonged stress of undergoing cancer treatment as anti-vaxxers picket hospitals, there’s also the exasperation of flip-flopping politicians who wield power over our lives. I’ve become incredibly frustrated with a number of provincial and state governments during the pandemic, because to me it’s disturbingly obvious that cancer patients, the elderly or citizens with chronic health conditions aren’t their priority. Some politicians will jeopardize our lives for their political careers and the economic advantage of a privileged few.

Official statistics report that globally about 5.5 million people have died of COVID-19. However, it’s still unknown how many deaths there have been indirectly as a result of the strain on heavily overburdened health care systems. Of course, individuals must take some personal responsibility for this problem, but governments are primarily responsible. In Canada almost 560,000 fewer surgeries were performed between March 2020 and June 2021 due to cancellations and delays, compared with the pre-pandemic period. Often, we’ve been reassured by government and health officials that it’s only elective surgeries that are being significantly impacted. But doctors and patients argue that the term “elective” is deceptive. For example, cancer surgery is not “elective” like a class in school. It just means you likely won’t die if your surgery happens on Thursday instead of Tuesday, unlike a burst appendix. 

Naturally cancer patients and their families are concerned about access to care as well as the potential disruptions to treatment as the pandemic drags on. Unfortunately, experts are now warning us that cancelled surgeries are only a single manifestation of this crisis. Two years into the pandemic some oncologists are seeing first-hand the “tsunami” of advanced cancers that are less curable than if they’d been diagnosed at an earlier stage. This increase is happening due to a combination of factors: 

  • Patients with cancer symptoms feared coming to hospitals, which are taking precautions to reduce the risk of contact with COVID-19.
  • People missed preventative screenings like mammograms and colonoscopies.
  • There were cuts to operating room time during lockdowns, slower diagnostic tests and biopsies, and reduced intensive care unit staffing for surgical patients.

Finally, it’s never been more isolating or lonely to be a cancer patient and the journey has never seemed more precarious. Those with advanced or incurable disease have had their lives impacted the most. “I knew that when they told me I was incurable, my years of life had shrunk down. I was not prepared to be robbed of experiencing them by being locked in my home for two years,” wrote one woman. “Of the few people that can visit, I have to warn them that I look very different. I’m a skeleton compared to the happy, size 14 I once was (and yes, I was happy at 14). Now my bones stick out all over. I need help getting up, and none of my clothes fit.”

Even during their medical appointments or hospitalizations, cancer patients are often required to abstain from close physical contact. This comes at a time in their lives when they probably need this type of support the most. “My family doctor delivered the diagnosis over the phone. Whenever I received bad news at the hospital, I walked to my car without holding anyone’s hand. The day of my surgery in July 2020, I lay on a gurney, my chest marked up with Sharpie where the incisions would be to remove my breasts, and waited for hours staring at the chair no one was allowed to sit in,” recalls Ann Cavlovic. Worse, wearing masks and other PPE sometimes means that even doctors and nurses are unable to offer the comfort of a warm hand in situations when a patient’s relatives are absent, trapped on the other side of the world or quarantined. As the longstanding slogan argues, no one should have to face cancer alone.

You Want Me to Do What?

“Are you someone who enjoys the unsolicited opinions of strangers and acquaintances? If so, I can’t recommend cancer highly enough. You won’t even have the first pathology report in your hands before the advice comes pouring in. Laugh and the world laughs with you; get cancer and the world can’t shut its trap,” wrote Caitlin Flanigan in her recent article for The Atlantic. 

If you’re a cancer patient then you’ll no doubt be able to empathize with the author’s lament on the subject of getting unsolicited advice. I know I’ve certainly felt high levels of frustration as people try to inform me how to live my life or deal with my disease. In some cases, the information we’re presented with is demonstrably inaccurate, scientifically unproven or even dangerous. After a decade of being offered personal as well as medical advice, caution and scepticism have become almost second nature to me. I inherently ask myself where is this information or recommendation coming from? Precisely who is telling me this, is the source an acknowledged expert in their field? Is what they are saying accurate, or could what they’re communicating contain a bias or a particular agenda?

Like most cancer patients I was particularly vulnerable in the months following my diagnosis. When my gynecologist gave me the results of my pathology report and said “it’s cancer,” I felt as if all that I knew and held certain about the world was suddenly obliterated or in doubt. Psychologists have observed that as human beings we tend to uphold something called the just world hypothesis or just world fallacy. We cling to the idea that the world is a fair and orderly place where what happens to people generally is what they deserve. In other words, bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. However, when an individual is diagnosed with cancer their sense of stability and belief in a just or fair world is often shaken— they can no longer rationalize much of what they thought was true. Some cancer patients become distressed, especially when they recognize that according to the just world hypothesis, they must somehow be responsible for their disease or deserve it. 

The truth I’ve come to accept is that I didn’t cause my cancer and I don’t have the ability to simply will it away. However, when my ovarian cancer was initially diagnosed, I was more desperate and naïve, more willing to imagine these things were still under my control. Looking back at the trauma I faced as a new patient, both my desperation and need for reassurance were justifiable. In 2012 I was hospitalized for over a month and a half at Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre. The 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. 

Regrettably, some of the things that people either said or wrote to me during that time were highly inappropriate. Many of their suggestions worsened, or even exploited, my fear and vulnerability. In particular they reinforced the misconception that I could somehow control the course of the insidious disease that had invaded my body. On occasion this might have been due to malevolence, but I still believe the leading cause of people’s poor advice was ignorance.

I was recently reminded of some of the damaging words that were spoken to me by one member’s post in an online cancer support group. I nearly gasped in astonishment as, with a measure of composure, she conveyed the advice that she had just received from her oncologist. 

“He told me I needed to forget I ever had cancer, disassociate with all cancer friends or groups and eliminate thoughts of cancer and stress from my life to prevent recurrence,” she disclosed.

I was angry and astonished that such irrational advice had come from a cancer expert, an oncologist. What type of medical professional actually believes that cancer patients have the power to cause or prevent a recurrence simply by ruminating about their disease coming back or by not dwelling on it? This to the point of scolding patients for acknowledging their illness or the possibility it will someday recur. 

Of course, I don’t deny that a positive attitude and mental practices such as meditation can both play an important role in cancer recovery. Certainly, the mind is powerful and our attitude toward healing is important, but scientific evidence indicates that we cannot wish or ignore cancer away. 

The American Cancer Society and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health say there’s no evidence that meditation or support groups have a significant impact on survival rates. They can do all sorts of wonderful things, like reducing stress and allowing you to live in the moment instead of worrying about the next scan. However, there is no evidence that these methods will help you to achieve remission or slow the progression of the disease in your body.

Five Brutal Truths About Having Cancer

You will realize that life is often random or unfair.

Psychologists have observed that as human beings we tend to uphold something called the just world hypothesis or just world fallacy. We cling to the idea that the world is a fair and orderly place where what happens to people generally is what they deserve. In other words, bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. However, when an individual is diagnosed with cancer their sense of stability and belief in a just or fair world is often shaken— they can no longer rationalize much of what they thought was true. Some cancer patients become distressed, especially when they recognize that according to the just world hypothesis, they must somehow be responsible for their disease or deserve it. Many are forced to reassess their personal beliefs when it becomes clear to them that such an assumption isn’t valid.

Your closest relationships will be severely tested.

I’ve discovered that becoming ill with cancer has required me to analyze and redefine the relationships I once had, particularly with those closest to me. In many cases I’ve set new boundaries, as I will no longer tolerate toxic or unhealthy relationships. Some personal and business connections that I maintained before are finished, as a rule I’ve chosen not to stay in contact with people who were unable or unwilling to support me throughout my cancer journey. 

Most importantly, no one has the right to tell you how to respond emotionally to your cancer or to lecture you about how you should live your life after a diagnosis. Early in my cancer journey, I was confronted by a couple of individuals who insinuated that I should not allow cancer to change my life. How could I have not changed? I refuse to go back to the way I was before I had cancer. I see that as a complete waste of all that I’ve been through. 

You may be faced with financial hardship.

Financial toxicity doesn’t have an official definition. But generally speaking, it’s defined as a financial burden or hardship a patient experiences as a result of their cancer diagnosis. The financial hardship might be related to the diagnosis itself, the symptoms associated with it or the cost of the treatment and any associated health care that they’re receiving.

How a person’s cancer impacts them financially is influenced by many factors, where they live, their age and their marital status are issues that often come into play. Financial toxicity may look different depending on the patient and their situation. It may be something as straightforward as difficulty paying for medical visits, treatments or out-of-pocket expenditures, which can cause an individual to change the way they spend, borrow money or potentially delay or avoid care. 

Your overall health could be affected forever.

A large number of cancer survivors experience permanent changes to their body as a result of the disease or its aggressive treatments. The long-term impact of cancer can vary from relatively minor health problems to serious chronic health issues or disability. The most famous example I can think of is Terry Fox. In 1980, with one leg having been amputated due to osteosarcoma, Fox embarked on an east to west cross-Canada run to raise money and awareness for cancer research. Although the spread of his cancer eventually forced him to end his quest and ultimately cost him his life, his efforts resulted in a lasting, worldwide legacy. 

While I’m currently in remission, those dark days of surgery and chemotherapy have permanently changed my body. I’ve had to accept physical changes including the fact that my abdomen is severely scarred and that I have significantly less energy or vitality thanI did in the past. It’s also worth mentioning that, like Terry Fox and others, I’ve had to deal with disability. In my case I had substantial hearing loss prior to my cancer diagnosis, but the toxic chemotherapy drugs that were used robbed me of even more.

You will witness many other cancer patients die.

The most unbearable thing for me as a long-term ovarian cancer survivor has been knowing so many women with this insidious disease, it can be heartbreaking when I witness them gradually deteriorate or succumb to it. The famous American author and civil rights activist Audre Lorde received a diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of 44. While the prognosis isn’t usually as grim as for ovarian cancer, Lorde was still compelled to reflect on her mortality and the intimate connection she felt toward other women. “I carry tattooed upon my heart a list of names of women who did not survive, and there is always a space left for one more, my own,” she wrote.

I was diagnosed with the endometrioid type of ovarian cancer in November 2011, and as I approach the tenth anniversary of my survivorship, I too have amassed a list of names. The cruel fact is that each year about  3,100 Canadian women are newly diagnosed with ovarian cancer and an estimated 1,950 die from it.  In Canada, the five-year net survival for ovarian cancer is approximately 44 per cent. This statistic always makes me shudder, on average only about 44 per cent of the women who are diagnosed will survive for at least 5 years. I can only be grateful that I’ve become one of the fortunate few.

Cancer Diagnosis and Identity: Who are you?

One of the most significant mental health issues that I’ve recognized, both in myself and other cancer patients, is what the disease does to our self-identity. It’s as if we have to fight to remain ourselves after we are diagnosed with cancer. There are days when I feel caught in the middle of something. Although it’s true that ovarian cancer has substantially influenced my lifestyle, and to some extent how I view the world, it’s not all I am—I’ve struggled to make even those closest to me understand this paradox. It’s difficult to explain that while my self-identity is not entirely unchanged, I will always remain so much more than a cancer survivor or an oncology patient.

Regrettably, over the course of my journey, 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. For instance, one family friend became rather reclusive when she was informed that I was going through cancer treatment and behaved as if a cancer diagnosis might be contagious. She further assumed that all chemotherapy patients lose most of their hair and offered to loan me an old wig she had. But then, 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. It’s no wonder that some of us living with cancer still choose to avoid revealing our illness to anyone outside of our inner circle of family and close friends. We don’t want to be viewed differently—we just want to be normal, not defined by the disease. 

Of course, the health care system and the medical establishment are especially challenging—we are made to feel anonymous and are often reduced to nothing more than numbers or charts, it hurts that we are being robbed of our individualism. I was personally made to feel an acute lack of identity when some nurses and hospital workers didn’t call me by my correct or preferred name. Their error would stem from the fact that I’ve always been called by my middle name, and not my first like most people. I read a short poem recently that almost perfectly captures the feeling that I had on the cancer unit. Names by Wendy Cope describes a woman as she moves through life’s stages, the author deals with themes such as self-identity, ageing, illness and death. 

Names 

She was Eliza for a few weeks
When she was a baby –
Eliza Lily. Soon it changed to Lil.

Later she was Miss Steward in the baker’s shop
And then ‘my love’, ‘my darling’, Mother.

Widowed at thirty, she went back to work
As Mrs Hand. Her daughter grew up,
Married and gave birth.

Now she was Nanna. ‘Everybody
Calls me nanna,’ she would say to visitors.
And so they did – friends, tradesmen, the doctor.

In the geriatric ward
They used the patients’ Christian names.
‘Lil,’ we said, ‘or Nanna,’
But it wasn’t in her file
And for those last bewildered weeks
She was Eliza once again.

This poem becomes the heart-breaking reality for many cancer patients as we find ourselves navigating the hospital or other medical institutions. We feel ourselves diminished and our individual worth slipping away. As patients much of our privacy and control is essentially gone, on a hospital unit we must wake when we are told, wear what we are told and eat what we are told. Often, we don’t have the luxury of a private room, we must share a room with whomever, they say we have to. 

In his classic New York Times bestseller Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande examines identity and how it’s often diminished for residents of hospitals and nursing homes. The author, a medical doctor, uses case studies and also discusses the reality of chronic illness and ageing within his own family. Gawande writes that the battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s own life—to avoid being so diminished or dispirited or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or what you want to be. 

Similarly, Bonnie Annis, a breast cancer survivor and contributor to Cure magazine, recently wrote about the identity trap that we find ourselves in. “Just because a disease comes knocking on the door, does a life necessarily become drastically changed? Sometimes, perhaps, but not always,” she insists. “Taking time to hold tightly to identity can actually help with the ability to get through cancer. For example, if a person fails to remember how resilient she was before cancer, she may find herself struggling to keep her head above water when things get tough.”

Annis concludes that none of us escape cancer unscathed. It’s a life-changing and life-altering disease, but allowing it to become our identity is not an option. We’re all too precious and too different to live within the confines of the world of cancer. We can’t afford to give it the power to rob us of our identities.

What Cancer Patients Most Need to Hear

Looking back on my almost decade long journey as a cancer patient, I’ve come to recognize that there are certain validations and reassurances that I wish to receive. I’ve also discovered that there are some fundamental psychological and emotional needs that are common in people who are living with cancer. Here is a list of what I believe we long for from our friends, family and those closest to us 

We need you to reassure us that our cancer isn’t our fault.

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. Moreover, people often subtly, or not so subtly, blame us for our 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. 

There is a difference between taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions and feeling like we deserve to be blamed. It may be true in some cases that a patient’s 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 their health. However, allowing a cancer patient to absorb blame and feel shame will almost certainly make matters worse. Instead, it’s better if we do not let shame and guilt keep us from moving forward. Feelings of guilt should never stop a cancer patient form getting the support they need and deserve, or from living in a healthier way. 

One cancer survivor said in a Globe and Mail newspaper interview that he thought healthy people should never give cancer patients health advice. “There’s nothing worse than being sick and getting advice from the healthy, because it’s almost like insinuating you did something to make this happen to you,” he explained. I firmly agree with this statement, and I become extremely angry when someone who has never experienced cancer tells me how to live my life with the disease. I’ve decided shame and guilt are unnecessary burdens to carry. Indeed, 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.

We need you to validate our emotions, especially the unpleasant ones.

In took a cancer diagnosis for me to finally realize how essential validation is for a person’s mental health, especially their self-esteem. To validate someone is to recognize or affirm their validity or worth or the worth of their feeling or opinions. To validate someone often means using both your words and actions to make them feel valued or worthwhile. 

You might want to begin by acknowledging that cancer can be a terrifying experience and a diagnosis of this disease is usually a turning point that will alter a person’s life forever. I hate when people try to deny this fact or minimize it by giving me false reassurance. The truth is I don’t know if I’m going to be fine, you don’t know I’m if going to be fine, even my oncologist doesn’t know for certain if I’m going to be fine. Instead, I feel comforted when people use phrases like “I believe in you.” or “I’m pulling for you.”

We need you to be specific when you offer us assistance. 

“Can I do anything to help you?” Your overall intentions for asking a cancer patient this question is likely noble and your heart is in the right place. However, the phrasing of this question is frequently too vague or broad. The person undergoing cancer treatment is probably too overwhelmed to think of something specific, furthermore they don’t want to feel like a burden. Instead, it’s recommended that you ask if you can perform some task in particular for the person. “May I pick up some groceries for you?” or “I’d like to make you dinner tomorrow night.” are good examples of things you might want to say. Even scheduling routine appointments is difficult for an individual facing surgery or chemotherapy, so it might also be fitting to take the initiative. Many of us facing cancer treatment would be delighted if you offered to make some telephone calls or send some e-mail messages.

We need you to acknowledge our losses. 

Sometimes I view my cancer diagnosis as a series of losses, for example 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.

Allow us to cry, to feel numb, to be angry, or to feel however we’re feeling. These emotions hurt, but they are natural and normal. Grief is a person’s normal, healthy response to a loss. I’ve discovered firsthand that the loss that triggers grief isn’t always something physical. You can experience grief if you or a loved one are diagnosed with a major disease or face a serious illness. It’s common to grieve the future plans you had made, or the ways life will change. Remember there is no “right” way to grieve, everyone is different. Give us time to experience our loss in our own way. 

Cancer Survivorship: Tips for the Long Haul

On November third I’ll mark the ninth anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, sometimes it feels like yesterday and other times I see it as a lifetime ago. So much has changed in the world since that afternoon when I was told that I had both uterine and ovarian cancer; I feel that in many ways I’ve become a completely different person. The “new normal” has become my reality, however there are still days when being a cancer survivor is difficult, terrifying or lonely. Here I’d like to share some of the strategies that have helped me through the long haul of cancer survivorship, it’s always a struggle even though my disease is currently in remission.

Remember how you found motivation when you started your cancer journey.

When you’re first diagnosed with cancer, you’ll definitely have moments when you sense that your world is spinning violently out of control. The fundamental paradox for me as I underwent surgery, hospitalization and chemotherapy was that I was often put in situations where I felt a sense of power. To my surprise, I witnessed myself exhibit exceptional courage and self-assurance. It was sometimes as if I was standing in life’s Category 5 hurricane and remaining steadfast and unbroken. I don’t aspire to be a legend like Terry Fox or to be anything resembling a saint or a cancer hero. But through those dark days I discovered inner qualities and personal strengths that I never appreciated or properly acknowledged in myself.

Advocate for your needs using assertiveness.

As a cancer survivor you should never stop being assertive when it comes to ensuring that your needs are met, be direct, non-aggressive and specific with your requests. As an ovarian cancer survivor, I understand that women living with this ruthless disease need love and support and we deserve to be treated with empathy and compassion. We shouldn’t have to endure abusive or toxic relationships, especially when it involves a spouse, caregiver or other family member. Of course, navigating the complex and overburdened health care system also requires patients and families to advocate for themselves—it can sometimes literally mean the difference between life and death. I so often felt ignored or regarded as a medical case number, that the occasions when I was treated with dignity or compassion are especially memorable to me. The best medical professionals still find time to connect with their patients, and they are genuinely concerned about what we are thinking and feeling.

Focus on what is essential in your life.

I’ve come to the conclusion that cancer itself doesn’t make us see what’s meaningful; we see it when our attention turns away from the small and trivial distractions that surround us. Taking life for granted has become our culturally-induced default mode — we are trained to overlook the essential. As a cancer survivor I’ve ultimately been freed from this monotonous, addictive cycle. For example, I’m grateful for the oncologists who oversaw my case, especially my surgeon. I remain in awe of the fact that they literally saved my life, I also remember the nurses who were with me 24/7 in the hospital. I established a bond with several of them when, life-threatening complications forced me to spend seven consecutive weeks on the cancer unit. Weeks in cancer time feel like years, even decades, but the magnificent oncology nursing team that I had somehow helped me pull through.

I’ve noticed that I can truly appreciate the arrival of spring after a long hard winter. The sense of renewal or rebirth that is associated with spring has been heightened for me now. I appreciate the small wonders like a pair of finches building a nest in our yard and the poppies that bloom in the garden each June. Each day that I’m cancer-free is like a gift. It’s a miracle each morning when I wake up and become conscious that my disease is in remission and that I’m lying in my own bed. I give a sigh of relief when I discover that I’m not in the hospital and there is no need to drive to the cancer centre for chemotherapy or a checkup.

Build your passion into your post-cancer life. 

Even after a cancer diagnosis upends your life and disrupts your usual routines, it’s important not to abandon your interests and hobbies or the things that you enjoy doing the most. I enjoy writing and I still do that as much as possible. There’s an emerging group of professionals who employ the arts to help people heal. The new field is called creative arts therapies, and it encompasses a wide range of modes of expression including art, dance/movement, drama, music and poetry. When cancer patients undertake these activities, whether individually or with the guidance of a creative art therapist, they stand to benefit psychologically and emotionally. Recently there’s been a trend toward simple or old-fashioned crafts and hobbies such as knitting. Some adults are even using colouring books to relax and reduce daily stress. 

Connect with a mentor or support group.

There’s a familiar proverb that states that it takes a village to raise a child. I think that this can be modified to assert that it takes a village to properly support a cancer patient. When I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer nine years ago, I was suddenly faced with a whole new array of complex needs. It was sometimes necessary, or in my best interest, to accept the assistance of my family members or inner circle of friends. During treatment I also had access to social workers, psychologists, dieticians and other skilled professionals to provide support and guidance. Even this far into my cancer journey, I still belong to several online support groups for women with ovarian cancer and take part in fundraising events.

Cancer Communities Face the Challenges of 2020

Sometimes I find it easy to despair given current world events, including the ongoing global pandemic. This year has been especially stressful for cancer patients undergoing treatment, it has even been difficult for those of us who are in remission. There’s tremendous anxiety around the world as we witness the strain on cancer centres, major hospitals and just about every health care system. I like to remind myself of the resiliency being displayed by cancer communities as they carry on with hope and the determination to make it through this global crisis. I’m especially proud of the cancer organizations here in Canada. and in Calgary, the city where I live. 

Building During COVID-19

Despite the pandemic there is a much needed new cancer centre rising in Calgary. On my many visits to the current Tom Baker Centre, I was alarmed by the obviously overcrowded quarters. When it opened its doors in the 1980s, the Tom Baker Cancer Centre was spacious and featured state-of-the-art design. Flash forward thirty or forty years and the aging centre is crowded and serving a volume of patients that is well beyond the capacity that it was built for. 

After my first couple of appointments, I found it impossible not to notice how filled to capacity the Tom Baker Centre is. Like most patients, I was subjected to the overflowing parking lot, the busy chemotherapy beds and the often packed or standing room only waiting areas. 

Finally, in the fall of 2017 ground was officially broken for the new Calgary Cancer Centre. The facility is scheduled to open in 2023, it will have double the capacity to treat patients and feature ultramodern technology. I don’t know when or if my cancer will return, but I’ve been following the construction of the Calgary Cancer Centre—I’ve been watching throughout the pandemic with anticipation and hope for the future.

I captured this photograph from the Calgary Cancer Centre’s public webcam on the evening of May 26, 2020. I was awestruck by this beautiful image of the sun setting on the massive structure. 

The Walk Must Go On

Meanwhile, I’ve registered for Ovarian Cancer Canada’s largest annual fundraising event, the Ovarian Cancer Canada Walk of Hope. This year it’s become the  Virtual  Edition and will take place on Sunday, September 13. The Walk will certainly look different this year, but the community is focused on achieving our goal  and raising much needed funds to help women live fuller, better, longer lives. 

The pandemic does not change the simple fact that ovarian cancer research is significantly underfunded and that more has to be done to develop better treatments. Scientific progress in the field has been agonizingly slow, more than half of women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer still die within five years. Like many who have battled the disease, I dream that perhaps one day soon there will be a test that can detect ovarian cancer in its early stages. The majority of women are currently diagnosed after the cancer has spread beyond their reproductive system. In the meantime, funds raised for research in the area of immunotherapy might give renewed hope to some of us—especially the thousands who are already living with ovarian cancer or facing a recurrence.