How to Survive Cancer Treatment: Part I: Something’s Wrong

Aw, I bet you’re thinking this is going to be a downer post, right?

Well, I sure hope not. I don’t want to write a downer post, and I sure don’t want to write a “be strong, have faith, be positive” post.

Thing number one to remember about dealing with a possible cancer diagnosis: allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling. Well intentioned friends and family will tell you to “be positive.” I’m going to tell you: be whatever. If you are feeling scared, that’s okay. If you are feeling really depressed, that’s okay too. (If you are thinking of ending it all, that’s not okay … please talk to your doctor about it, please). If you’re not feeling positive about it, that’s absolutely okay. Most of the people telling you how to feel have never dealt with a possible cancer diagnosis. They mean well, and unless they are being unbearable, I suggest you just smile and nod at them, then proceed to work through whatever you are feeling. The most important thing … let me repeat … the most important thing in dealing with cancer, is to DEAL WITH REALITY. Dealing with the reality of what you are feeling helps you deal with the reality of what is going on physically. And dealing with the physical reality is the only way to beat it.

So where does it all start?

You notice something is wrong. Something hurts … maybe too much … maybe for too long. Or there is a lesion that looks wrong and doesn’t go away. Or a lump that doesn’t go away. Or you just don’t feel right for too long, with no valid reason. Something is wrong.

You go to the doctor. They do an examination, perhaps run some tests. You ask, “So what do you think? What does this look like?”

Then you hear the first ominous words. “Well, it does have a bit of an irregular border.”

Once you’re past 40, the 2 things you least want to hear are, 1) Your job has been eliminated; 2) It does have a bit of an irregular border. Irregular borders are fine when you’re talking about the ones that separate countries. But in or on your body, they are rarely good news.

For me, that irregular border was what I had not felt. No, I was quite sure that that lump was yet another cyst, just like the ones I had felt for 30 years … it seemed so smooth to me. (This, I later realized, is why people go to medical school. So that they can tell the difference between “regular borders” and “irregular borders.”)

So when I heard that “irregular border” thing, I knew I was, as they say, screwed. My whole self-diagnosis for the past few months was entirely based on the lump being very smooth.

And here’s what I did next.

I started exercising every day. My thinking was, if this turns out to be cancer, then I am going to need to be in the best shape of my life to get through the treatment process. I had no idea what that treatment process would end up being, but very few cancer treatments are easy on the body. Being strong and in condition seemed critical to me, to help me achieve a positive outcome.

Some people just want to have their doctors be in charge and make the decisions. But I suspect that most of the people who might find this post when they are in a similar situation are the kind of people who want to research their condition. It’s hard not to. The internet is just so FULL of information. Just let me point out … most of what you can find is not relevant to you, and much of what you find is outdated. And you’ll probably do best to stick with .gov and .edu domains when it comes to hard research on disease. Remember that your face time with the doctor is going to be somewhat limited: early on, they stretch out the appointments to ease you into the diagnosis and treatment plan, but don’t waste too much time grilling them on every treatment option. Try to distill all your research into a few focused, relevant questions. (Livestrong.org (not .com) and PLWC.org have good guides on what to ask and how to get organized.)

Finally, after that first appointment, the “something is wrong” appointment … when it looks like you may be dealing with a cancer diagnosis … pick a person who is calm and clear-headed to be your buddy. (Hopefully, your spouse/partner is calm and clear-headed. If not … find someone who is.) Unless you have been through this, you cannot imagine how your wits abandon you when you get into the doctor’s office. Did he really say that? I don’t remember what he said about that. I didn’t ask that. I forget what he said. It all sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher talking. (Honestly, sometimes it does.) Your buddy is going to have a copy of your questions, is going to go to appointments with you, is going to be really diligent about taking notes, is going to take you home from the procedures they do when they won’t let you drive afterward. Trust me, you need a buddy. The mental stress of dealing with a cancer diagnosis is overwhelming, even for a very strong person. And it’s about maximizing your chances of fighting this dam disease successfully, not being some kind of rock of Gibraltar.

Having cancer is going to be one of the crappiest things that ever happens to you. But for many people … this is survivable. You can take steps to make those chances of surviving better, or you can make things worse. Both are in your power. And remember, you don’t have to be brave, you don’t have to be strong, or positive … just be what you are.

After going through all the emotional ups and downs, I found I reached the point of acceptance. People said, “You’re so brave.” I said, “No, not really … I was very depressed, but I finally realized that this is my life. What’s happening sucks, but other people in this world have it much worse. It’s my life, and I have to deal with what’s there. And since my time may be limited, I might as well enjoy whatever time I have left.”

Are you in that place where something is wrong? Then think about these things, that were so helpful to me:

  1. Keep it real. Stay grounded in reality. Be real with yourself about what you are feeling. If you’re sad, be sad. If you’re filled with faith, hallelujah. Stay real when it comes to the physical end too … the diagnostic process, the diagnosis itself, the prognosis, the side effects, all of it.
  2. Do research at reliable web sites. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but do not waste too much of the doctor’s time.
  3. Get in shape. If you’re totally out of condition, start slowly, but START. I cannot over-emphasize how much easier being in shape is going to make everything over the next few months. It will help stabilize your emotions and relieve stress. It will help your heart deal with cardio toxic treatments. It will help lessen perceived side effects such as nausea. And I believe, it helps the treatments be more effective. More on that in a future post.
  4. Pick a reliable buddy. This person will be your partner in the diagnosis/treatment processes.
  5. Finally, you may be all gung ho about finding alternative treatments. I urge you to consider this: if you are lucky, you are going to have one good shot at beating this disease. Cancer is capable of killing you without even trying. It is a vicious, relentless disease. Please do not squander your one chance to beat it wasting time with unproven, alternative approaches. Hit cancer hard, hard enough to wipe it out, before it kills you. There is no guarantee that conventional treatment WILL succeed … but in most cases, it represents your best chance of surviving long term.
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