Life has a way of turning toward a path without warning. An email came one night last week and I learned that a friend’s husband has had a recurrence of lymphoma, a disease he thought he had seen the last of four years ago. He and his family have begun coping with these new realities after he made an emergency visit to an optometrist to have a small sac examined that had formed under one eye and he was sent immediately to an ophthalmologist to confirm the diagnosis of lymphoma.
Cancer sets you off in a whirl of thoughts, confusion and fears of being overwhelmed and being overtaken by a disease that often arrives with little warning and brings with it a dark sense of foreboding. Managing the fearful diagnosis of cancer is but the first of many transitions that will be faced by cancer patients and their family members.
I myself have been free of cancer now for over five years; the diagnosis in my case was papillary cell carcinoma – fancy medical terminology for a type of thyroid cancer. I remember the details of the story as it evolved: the first time a doctor felt around my throat with his probing fingers and noticed a nodule; the look on the pathologist’s face as she came back into the exam room after conducting a fine needle biopsy of the nodule. I knew by her expression – kindness and compassion so evident in her eyes – that the news would not be good. I recall phoning my boss that morning to say that I had just come from the hospital with a cancer diagnosis and would be returning to the office a bit late. I took myself out to breakfast that day, eating absentmindedly and pretending to “read” the newspaper while my mind raced ahead into an uncertain future, questions tumbling over each other as I tried to adjust my thinking.
The first battle to be won with any cancer diagnosis is an attitudinal one; learning to wrap your mind around a changed reality and a new day that has dawned without your consent. “I have cancer” is hard to even say aloud the first few times. The words stick in your throat because they seem so foreign and unimaginable. Me? I have cancer? The mind rebels and protests in denial, the first stage of the transition process, on your way toward acceptance.
Cancer, and any other major illness, is a personal journey that includes many people but, paradoxically, can make you feel alone. In the dark hours of the morning before the world awakened to the dawn, I often lay in bed wondering what had happened; had I done something to create the conditions for a cancer to grow? How would this turn out? Would I recover fully? I dug out all the books I had read on holistic health, seeking comfort and inspiration as I devoured them again. I researched everything I could find about papillary cell carcinoma and, to my relief, I learned that it had a long history and an established protocol of treatment that my doctor advocated for us to follow. I rejoiced in the wisdom and experience of the medical teams that began to surround me – nurses, radiologists, oncology technicians, and even the secretaries who efficiently and compassionately oversaw the scheduling functions. Smiling faces, caring eyes and ready laughs were welcome and important parts of my days.
Telling my children the news was the hardest challenge; having ramped up my education on the subject, I wove what I had learned into the most positive story I could share. I said that while the news was not welcome, it was also not a cause for alarm or panic. I had a very treatable cancer, I was blessed that it had been caught in its early stage and that the treatment was well established. I shared what my doctors told me, that I would “die of old age, rather than from this cancer.” I meant it, and the sincerity in my voice led one of my sons to share that he “appreciated how” I had told him about the cancer. I took strength from these conversations, and as I reassured others, I reassured myself.
I had surgery to remove my thyroid gland two months after the initial diagnosis; it was a short procedure, requiring only one night in the hospital and a week of recuperation before returning to work. I had ablation therapy a few months later in which radioactive iodine was introduced into my body after following a low iodine diet for two weeks. Thyroid cancer cells happen to love iodine, a lethal poison, and after being deprived of it for two weeks, they will vigorously seek it out and attach themselves to it. This deadly game of hide and seek seemed to me a very fitting and just outcome, and I enjoyed the mental image of cancer cells being destroyed by their very own lustful propensities.
For each of the next two years, I had this same procedure, and each time no new cancer cells were uncovered. I breathed a deep sigh of relief each time when the tests came back negative and I felt life was more beautiful than ever. This is one of the gifts of cancer, or of any life threatening illness: to appreciate each day with fresh eyes and a spirit of deep gratitude. Life is good and you know it without question.
My friend’s husband has begun writing a blog – reaching out to loving friends and colleagues around the country for support and to share information as his journey proceeds. The power of support, coupled with technology that makes it possible to convey updates in real time, allows for sharing humorous and sorrowful moments alike, and for the patient to receive life-giving companionship, empathy and emotional support. It is powerful medicine, strengthening him and those who are walking alongside, as he navigates this regrettably familiar terrain. The website he is using is www.blogspot.com, but there is also www.caringbridge.com.
Facing cancer is a spiritual journey that takes us by surprise, and brings with it the seeds of a renewed love for life, and plumbs previously unsuspected reserves in us for courage, hope and resilience. I am reminded of the wise words of Rabbi Ben Hei Hei when he wrote about the purpose of life, as…
“We are here to do, and through doing to learn; and through learning to know, and through knowing to experience wonder; and through wonder to attain wisdom, and through wisdom to find simplicity; and through simplicity to give attention, and through attention to see what needs to be done.”