My Personal 360° View of the Cancer Experience
You have a concern, you call you doctor, you get in to see your doctor, she finds “something.” She sends you for the appropriate tests and then, the dreaded phone call comes … “Ann, it’s malignant … you have breast cancer.”
You know, there’s never a good time for a negative diagnosis, and truthfully, no one ever wants one or expects one. But, it happens to 1 in 3 women (and 1 in 2 men) in their lifetime.
So, where to start? What are your initial thoughts? You probably freak out, tell your loved ones and then get online to figure it all out. You better do all that quickly because, honestly, as soon as that diagnosis comes in there are dozens of decisions to be made and medical appointments to be set.
There are new phrases to learn: degree, stage, extent of coverage and other discriminating distinctions. There are all the surgical and treatment decisions to be made .. and then, there are the serious questions about life:
Will I live?
Will I lose my breast or be disfigured?
How will I be able to continue working?
How will I support myself?
What protocols do I need?
How will my family handle it all?
This thing called cancer. It’s really a very tricky thing and it’s different for every person.
Every individual’s experience must be honored for the uniqueness that it is AND no one can be compared to anyone else. It’s important to respect that.
Cancer does not end when the culprit is removed or after it is attacked with powerful drugs or radiation. So, how long does it last? I contend, that it lasts forever – at least the threat of it returning lasts forever. In reality, however, for many the actual aftermath seems to run two years or so.
But, hear me out: There is life after cancer … and it can be great and you can THRIVE.
I remember the first time I showed up for my cancer support group, just after completing treatments. I asked them when they started feeling more “normal” and they said … 2 years. I started to cry. Now that “treatment” was over, I wanted to go back to who I was. They were loving but honest when they said, “Ann, recovery takes a long time. Be patient. You will experience a New Normal”
So let me tell you why I’m really writing this article.
My experience of my own cancer was the FINAL piece of the puzzle in a long life of other cancer experiences. I now had a 360 degree view… I could now see through the lens as a patient, along with all the other viewpoints I’ll describe to you.
When I was 31, my youngest brother (then age 26) was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. Long story short, he died within 9 months. And, to make matters worse, two weeks after this brother’s death, another brother was killed in a car accident. OMG – I’m a new Mother (with a 7 month old), who just lost two brothers within 2 weeks of each other AND I was the major emotional support for my Mother. I have the view of the caregiver and family member.
My degree is an MSW. I was a clinical social worker – a psychotherapist. Certainly after my brother’s death, I became almost consumed by the need to help people accept their impending death or the death of a loved one. Much of my therapy practice and even courses and workshops I taught were around Death and Dying and caretaking. I have the view of a therapist working directly with patients.
With that background, I was asked to head up a community volunteer Hospice. I agreed. I selected and screened applicants, I taught the volunteers and I ran the Hospice (on the side.) I have the view of an administrator/ health care provider.
On the day I was diagnosed with my own breast cancer, I remember thinking … “well this will certainly be another view.” It wasn’t one that I wanted. But yes, now I have the view of being a patient.
I share all this to point out that I have this multi-view of cancer and have some opinions and some tips. My premise is that: Cancer patients are people first… they are human beings with many facets to their lives. We can’t overgeneralize about them.
So, here are a few notions:
1. Everyone’s experience is different
2. No one expects to get cancer … not even those who smoke or engage in any behaviors that are statistically known to cause cancer or who have a genetic pre-disposition.
3. No one knows how to handle it.
4. Caregivers, even if they’ve done it before, are in for a totally different experience each time because everyone’s experience is different.
5. Cancer is unpredictable, so no one can ever be able to predict anything about it with certainty… pro or con.
6. People who experience cancer have different resources and circumstances … not just about money, but family or not, jobs that easily adapt to treatment or not, workplaces that understand or not, friends and support or not, the proximity of treatment resources or not.
So my purpose is to begin sharing the truth of my experience from a 360 degree lens of what the true cancer experience is like. Now, of course, this is through my filter of my experience along with discussions with others. However, I feel I can illuminate what I call the Cancer Adventure and deliver it in bite-sized pieces for people to better grasp.
Key Learnings through my adventure with Cancer:
1. Be honest … tell others how you feel, acknowledge that there is an alien living in your body
2. Ask for help and be willing to accept it.
3. Approach the whole experience from a place of curiosity … afterall, you are adventuring into something new… an uncharted area.
4. Remember that cancer is like a blip on the screen or a standstill on the highway. It’s Annoying. Sometimes it lasts a long time, and others a short time, but annoying either way. It will be up to you to handle it in as positive a way as you can.
5. Enjoy all the little things in life that you might be taking for granted: taste, smell, playfulness, affection; And the big things: love, relationship, beauty.
6. Live in the MOMENT … that’s all you have. (actually, that’s all any of us have.)
One final statement and this is KEY to my purpose: Let’s take on ReInventing/ transforming the conversation of cancer. Let’s move from SURVIVING cancer to THRIVING AFTER cancer. Surviving is a good thing, but THRIVING is a hopeful notion and an empowering phrase.
Ann Fry, MSW, is a professional speaker and a catalyst for change and reinvention. She brings her concern for cancer into the work she does in corporations as well. She resides in NYC.
www.annfry.com • firstname.lastname@example.org
646-895-9295 • cell 646-708-5650