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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Please don’t kill the bugs

I have a neighbor who is a little bit funny about his yard. He pays someone to come dump various chemicals on it every few weeks, and whenever he spots more than a few insects, he pulls out the Sevin and starts dumping pesticide all over the place.

He’s not really particularly bright, but he’s a pleasant enough neighbor, and I try to keep peace with my neighbors, no matter how much I think they are doing the wrong thing.

His war against the insects is one of those things that seems so wrong to me. I am of quite the opposite persuasion. I don’t particularly like bugs, but I accept that most of them have a genuine useful purpose in the great scheme of things … at least the non-invasive, native types. And I have a policy on bug control.

My policy is simple: inside belongs to me, and actually, so does a part¬† of the outside … but as long as they stay outside and do not dedicate their efforts to getting inside and taking over, they can live outside, undisturbed by me. In fact, if a non-pest happens to find his/her way inside, I’ll scoop it up in a big plastic cup and relocate it back outside. Everyone makes mistakes, even bugs.

I remember as a kid, there used to be so many fireflies. Now, I see very few, and I have read articles that say that, in part, the overuse of pesticides by homeowners (and fertilizers containing pesticides) has reduced the populations of these marvelous insects, and many more beneficial species.

I don’t know where the “it’s a bug, I must kill it” attitude comes from. But I sure encourage everyone to try to find a more tolerant place in their hearts. If you have a wasp nest, even if you are allergic, you don’t have to destroy them. They really aren’t interested in you … they are serving an important function in preying on insect pests. If you have kids and are worried, teach them to respect nature, and not throw rocks into the nest … getting along with other living things is a tremendous virtue. Killing things that annoy us is not a particularly good life lesson.

Live and let live. There is a lot of wisdom in those words. Please think about it, before you grab that can of Presto Bug Killer.

How I Quit Smoking

Shortly after I turned the big 4-0, I awoke one day to find I was feeling a pain in my right lung. I had been smoking menthol cigarettes, 1-2 packs per day, for nearly 25 years at that point. I worked out several times per week, alternating aerobic and strength training. I figured, as a smoker, it was important and maybe helped my body deal with the bad effects of smoking. This is what I now know is called, “silly thinking.”

Anyway, there was this pain, and as I was dipping my toes into middle age, I realized it was time that I quit smoking. I had tried it once. When I was 20 or so, and had only been smoking 5 years. It seemed impossible at that time. The urges were too strong. However, in the ensuing years, researchers developed nicotine replacement therapy, which was available first, by prescription, then later over-the-counter. By the time I decided to quit, availability was over-the-counter.

Basically, I didn’t make a big deal out of it. Some recommend that you do that … make announcements, plan for the big day, etc. I told myself that I’d just give it a try, that whole quitting thing. No pressure.

I got my nicotine patches, and started with them. I wore the strongest patch first, as it recommended. I found that I didn’t want to smoke as much. Hmmm. Working pretty well so far.

I continued with the patches, and smoking only when the urge was too strong to resist. However, about 2 weeks into the program of using the patches, I had an allergic skin reaction to them. I awoke in the middle of night, feeling pretty sick, heart racing, stomach churning, and developed red welts in the last 4-5 locations where the patches had been applied to my skin. I think the adhesive was the issue … I have since that time had big problems with any sort of medical adhesives. I think they caused this inflammation and allowed too much nicotine to get into my system, and I had a mild overdose of nicotine that night I described.

So, not near completion of the patch program, unfortunately I had to discontinue it, but good news, the nicotine gum was available. So I stopped smoking at that time, and used the gum for a couple of weeks when the strongest urges hit. They were not frequent.

That’s the physical side.

The more important, and possibly more difficult battle, is the emotional one. They say to avoid triggers. What, don’t eat, don’t drink, don’t talk on the phone? This was before the Internet … that was how you communicated. Scratch those recommendations.

For me, the real tricks of being successful were in programming success.

Every time I had an urge to smoke, I said, either aloud or whispered (depending on where I was): RIght now I really want to smoke. But I CHOOSE not to. (What does this do? It acknowledges reality — trying to tell yourself that you don’t want to smoke only empowers the cigarettes. Acknowledging the urge gives ME the power, as does the follow-up statement — that I CHOOSE not to smoke.)

When I had the urge to smoke, I also told myself this: Whether I smoke or do not smoke right now, it will not be enough. It will never be enough … it will not make me not want to smoke. Smoking will only satisfy the urge momentarily. It will be back again. (That helped me realize that smoking is a short term series of little satisfactions, but it never provided long-term satisfaction.)

After a short time of not smoking, I realized 2 important things:

  1. I was just like those people I saw huddled outside smoking. They are, and I was, an addict. Smoking was just like sticking a needle into my arm to give me the drug I needed. I often told myself I smoked because I loved the taste. I realized that was self-serving rationalization. I smoked because my body needed nicotine.
  2. Smokers stink. I could smell them each time I walked past them … and I realized I used to stink too. What a nasty smell. Smokers can’t smell it on themselves.

Frankly, I was surprised that it was not as hard to quit as I remembered from my attempt 20 years previously. I think the main difference was that during those 20 years, I lived. When you live, you gain experience in dealing with adversity, you gain strength, you gain the ability to make choices and stand by them.

One lady I knew, who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, was headed outside to smoke. She had just revealed the cancer. I said, “So why are you still smoking?” “Oh,” she said, “I’m just not ready to quit.” I told her what I had discovered … you are never “ready.” There is never a good time. There will always be stress at work, a partner that you argue with, a sick relative, final exams, debt, worry about affording the new itoy, whatever. There will always be adversity. Cigarettes do not obliterate adversity. They only add to the burden: the cost, the toll on one’s health, the augmenting odds of serious disease as the years pass.

Anyway, that’s my story about quitting smoking. Hopefully, someone can glean something useful from it.

Good luck!

I don’t wanna dye ….

I saw my first gray hairs at about 19. There were a couple. Evidently, at night, they did what bunnies do, and now, a few decades later, I have a head full of gray hares … er, ¬†hairs.

One day a lady at work asked me, “Why don’t you dye it?”

I looked at her as if she had spoken in Portuguese (which I don’t speak).

“But why would I?”

Of the dying persuasion, she evidently believed that dying her hair made her look younger. It’s a funny form of self-delusion that affects many peri-menopausal and menopausal women. I guess, statistically, up to 95% these days.

Evidently, there is no honest friend to tell these people, “You don’t look younger. You don’t look youthful. It doesn’t look good. It doesn’t match your complexion and it clashes with your wrinkles. Your jet-black thinning hair looks silly.” All that stuff.

It makes me kind of sad. I think a lot of these women are dying, and sometimes dieing, to catch a man, not lose their man, or cling to something that diminishing estrogen seems to be taking away. I think it often goes hand in hand with low self esteem. Sure, sometime I psychologize about other people. But what good reason is there to make one’s natural hair color look like cordovan loafers? What weird reality distortion wave affects their brains and tells them it looks good?

Gray hair – my gray hair, anyone’s gray hair – isn’t something that is broken. It doesn’t need to be fixed. I embrace it as the badge of having lived long enough to have some dam sense. I embrace it because it is me, as I am, and that is a wonderful thing. A few years ago, after some medical treatments, I lost all my hair, then when it came back, it was this iridescent white. It was stunning. People stopped me in stores to tell me how great it looked. It was bizarre and wonderful. Then, slowly, the color (what little was left) returned. I was so disappointed. It no longer looked stunning, and people no longer stopped me in the store. But that’s ok.

Here’s the thing: how we perceive ourselves and how we project ourselves creates an aura (really, don’t groan) guiding how others perceive us. Embrace your youness. You’re the only one who possesses it.