In the cancer world, people talk about the anniversary of their cancer diagnosis. Well I can’t believe it has been one year today since I was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. It is fascinating to me to reread lines I wrote a few weeks ago about this upcoming anniversary. I knew it was coming up and it was already starting to shake things up inside so I started writing. I was shocked to see how dark my thoughts were then, I had written things like “there is nothing to celebrate about having cancer, having cancer sucks”. Yes having cancer sucks but I have been in a total different mind set lately. I think something clicked within me during our trip to Canada and ever since we have been back, I am feeling very different, in a much better and healthier place. Maybe it is the talk I had with my aunt which I described in a previous post, maybe it is reading the story of Anita Moorjani, a woman with advanced cancer who was given hours to live and after being in the coma, came back to life and had a miraculous healing, or maybe it is has been talking to long term survivors of Stage 4 cancer as part of a book I am writing. I can’t really pinpoint one single thing or event, but I am feeling a lot more at peace with my diagnosis and being on chemotherapy “for life”.
Yes cancer has changed my life forever and yes the date I was told on the phone (while driving to pick my kids up from school) that I had Stage 4 cancer will be etched in my memory forever. I was way too young for this, I was pretty healthy and fit, it just did not make any sense. My life has not been the same since and will never be. For almost one year, I thought it was a bad thing because I loved my life the way it was. I am slowly starting to see that there is room for change in my life and yes room for improvement, room for an even better and more fulfilling life.
I have learned a lot about the cancer world this past year, a world I barely knew before I was diagnosed. I realized how scary the word “cancer” is and I still find myself struggling to say it out lot. I will catch myself say “I am on chemotherapy” to explain that I have cancer. Maybe it is just a way to downplay the impact of this loaded word for myself and others. I still remember my son’s first comment when we told him I had cancer “but people die from this”, he is right, this is what cancer is associated with. I have come to understand that people can live with cancer, live well with it, and not just die from it. This is an important lesson I have learned this year.
I do believe that how we “see” things impacts greatly how we adapt to them. I learned another very important lesson during a clinical hypnosis session I had with someone I will forever be grateful to – Dr. C. made me see things differently. When I saw him, I had been dealing with this cancer for about 6 months and had been on this mission to rid myself of these cancerous cells invading my body. What I realized with him is that my desire was so intense that it was counterproductive. So much energy was spent on fighting and not on healing. Basically what I realized then is something I had heard before from Bernie Siegel but had not been able to fully grasp and hold onto and that is the notion that the body has the capacity to heal itself. If you cut yourself, your body will naturally know what to do. I had a hard time buying into this concept when it came to having a Stage 4 diagnosis. Now that I have been responding really well to chemo, I have come to a place where I do believe that my cells can regenerate and that my body can heal. I know not everybody shares my belief and truly I don’t care. I have heard enough stories of long term survivors to believe that it can happen and this is all I need.
Ever since my doctor told me I would probably need to be on chemotherapy forever, I instantly thought that chemo would be like my insulin. Just like people with diabetes have to take insulin everyday, I would take chemo every other week. So many times I have heard people refer to chemo as “poison”, but from day 1, I saw it as “healing juice”. This is another example of how I think that the mind can influence the body. If you are constantly telling your body you are feeding it poison, it would be hard for your body to believe otherwise. Seeing chemo as an ally as opposed to an enemy might have helped me not develop so many side effects. I am not saying I didn’t have any but I managed them pretty well.
I have also decided to reject the “war against cancer” analogy. One of the things that became clear to me early on is that the war metaphor was not working for me. I hate war and honestly war scares me to death. If I had to be a soldier in a war, I am sure I would be the first one down. I would either close my eyes and hope for the best or I would hide somewhere hoping no one would ever find me. I wouldn’t even know how to fight, what to do with a weapon in my hands, I would be paralyzed with fear. I can see how war is such a good analogy for cancer as there is a clear enemy, a commander and allies (the doctor, healthcare professionals, family and friends), a weaponry (chemo, radiation, surgery), casualties (neuropathy, loss of hair, neutropenia etc). But the major problem is that we talk about people winning or losing their battle and I can’t stand this analogy. I don’t think that one loses their battle, but rather the treatment fails, there are clear limitations in the weaponry and in the commander’s understanding of the enemy. A soldier can only do what he is told with the tools he has. So here is a better analogy for me. I am now seeing cancer not as a war, but as a road trip. After being diagnosed, I realized that I had been living on the highway. I was speeding through life, often times on the “cruise control” just focusing on getting to my next destination. I was driven and determined to get there and didn’t pay much attention to the present. And in hindsight, I got to many destinations and I am proud of everything I accomplished. With cancer, I was forced to get off the highway and of course that was unsettling. I am not even sure what my destination is and for once in my life, its ok. Maybe I don’t need a destination, I can just enjoy the ride and the scenery. For sure taking these side roads comes with its own set of challenges, the roads are more bumpy and sometimes very poorly illuminated. There will be detours, forks, roadblocks and sometimes even u-turns. But one thing for sure, is that there will be no winning, failing or losing. I can still catch myself trying to get back on the highway but I am getting better and better at staying on the side roads.
So it has been quite a year. Despite everything, I feel so very fortunate to have been surrounded by such amazing people in my life. From my extremely supportive and loving husband, my incredible kids, my parents and in-laws who so generously helped us during the intense chemo, to my wonderful friends and especially to Louise who must have bought every book written on cancer and even organized a 5K in my honor, to my employer, my amazing work landlord and coworkers, all my fellow survivors I have met online, and of course all the health care professionals who have helped me. I have met extraordinary people throughout this journey and know that is just the beginning of my new life..
So cheers my friends and here’s to many more cancerversaries!