Not A Cancer Superhero? You Are Still Enough

After reading about the tragic passing of actor Chadwick Boseman at age 43 from colon cancer, in addition to his nothing-short-of-heroic efforts to persevere with his career and charitable acts while facing cancer treatment and a worsening prognosis, I was moved with emotion. First, for the loss of an immensely talented actor who would have had a long and bright future. Second, because knowing how society looks at cancer sufferers, he would not have gotten the roles he did had he been open about his diagnosis. 

And, third, for the rest of us run-of-the-mill cancer patients. When I was going through treatment, I wasn’t a hero. I was scared. I didn’t keep my illness a secret so that I wouldn’t be viewed as “uncastable” like Mr. Boseman might have been, or so I would be unhindered in my drive to achieve great things, as other notable cancer patients have. At least the ones who are written about in the media.

Me? I was barely holding on.

Everyone knew about my diagnosis, especially those who saw me on a daily basis. I didn’t want people to speculate about my condition once I started losing my hair and missing work, so I made sure to get the word out. But the real battle I fought was much more personal and invisible. My nemesis was anxiety, and I entered that fight ill-equipped to win it.

It may not feel like it when you’re hearing about the accomplishments of others, but just showing up is an achievement when it comes to cancer.

So while I was dragging myself around to doctors’ appointments and cancer treatments, I was churning inside. There were days I wanted to numb out and curl up in a corner. But I went to the office. I smiled at coworkers even when I was nauseated by anxiety. That’s it. No great feats, nothing that others could remark favorably on or report in the news. I didn’t feel strong or brave and certainly not like a hero. I simply existed. 

It would have been so cool was to have bravely fought cancer while still racking up amazing accomplishments. To be the one about whom people would say, “And she did ALL THAT while undergoing treatment!” No, not me. Not everyone is in a position to be that superhero.

So the point I want to make is that you will hear of the cancer patients who are truly inspirational, and I, along with everyone else, am awed by their strength of character and ability to continue in the face of a life-threatening illness. But there are also many of us that limp along day by day, trying to keep our lives together after they’ve been torn asunder by a cancer diagnosis. We’re not going to get accolades for making it back to work after five days of nausea. But we persevere in our own inconspicuous ways. Perhaps you’re one of those.

And that’s enough. 

Hey Doctors! Before You Give a Cancer Diagnosis…

From time to time, I think back on my cancer experience (who am I kidding, I think about it every single day!) and wonder how things might have gone differently. Generally, I write for the cancer patient, but this post is directed at the doctor who delivers the diagnosis.

So…dear doctors:

Think very carefully about what else you want to tell a new cancer patient right after you tell them that they have cancer. It better not be important, because they’re not going to hear it. Once you deliver the diagnosis, a cancer patient’s executive level cognitive processes freeze, making comprehension difficult. Any further speech sounds like the “wah-wah-wah” talk of the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons.

For example, I was told two things by my radiologist, when he came into the room after he looked at my diagnostic ultrasound: (1) you have cancer, and (2) you’re going to be alright. Guess which one of those points I didn’t remember. I’m sure my doctor was trying to be cheery and supportive, but I can guarantee you it didn’t work.

Let’s face it, no matter how gently a doctor tries to break it to you, being told that you have cancer is devastating. It’s perfectly normal to be blown back by the news because your life is going to change drastically for at least a while, and maybe permanently. But, geez, doc, you should be prepared to repeat the same info at least several times and cut out the unnecessary bits. Your newly-designated cancer patient is going to have to need time to process the news!

Tip to the patient: bring someone with you to your subsequent visits who’s good at taking notes and is on an even keel. I brought my husband but he barely wrote anything down. Turns out, he was just as shocked as I was and wasn’t taking the news any better.

Hey, doc, I get that this is hard on you too. So please don’t think I don’t appreciate what you do (especially these days!). But please consider some of these things before you deliver your next cancer diagnosis. Thanks. 🙂

Following up on that, doc, the next thing that I would suggest is that you not give overly specific responses to questions based on assumptions you’re making. I asked about the recovery time from surgery, since I was terrified by the thought of going under the knife. Mine was early stage breast cancer, and ultimately I had a lumpectomy, but that same radiologist had warned me that recovery would take 4-6 weeks. Up to a month and a half?!? I whimpered something along the lines of, “But I have to work,” at which point he reminded me that my health was more important than my job.

I don’t know where he pulled out such a long recovery time, but being given that sort of time frame compounded my anxiety. Maybe he also said that some people have a shorter recovery time, but of course, I wasn’t processing info well and all I could remember was “4-6 weeks”.

So I would recommend to doctors, (1) if you really don’t know specifics, don’t offer estimates–I was back to work the week after my surgery, btw–and (2) please don’t blow off a patient’s concern about the importance of other aspects of their lives, like going to work. Yes, ultimately, as the saying goes, “if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” But for many of us, if you don’t have a job, you don’t have health insurance! Everything in our lives is interconnected. It’s all important. Please keep that in mind.

Hey, nobody likes to deliver bad news and I know you’re trying your best. But the only thing worse than telling someone they have cancer is being the one it’s being told to. So please, be gentle. You will go home that evening possibly bummed that another one of your patients has cancer.

The patient is going home that evening embarking on one of the most frightening journeys of their life.