The husband of a dear friend of my wife’s has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma and is receiving treatment. Chemo will continue for a few weeks, following by radiation and eventually a stem cell transplant. “John” (not his real name) is in his 50s and is otherwise fit and healthy, so has good reason to believe he'll recover. I’m praying that he does.
I know from experience what it’s like to fall into this whirlwind, and since I’ve been invited by Ellen’s friend to share my insight, I will do so here. While everyone’s experience with cancer is unique, we can learn valuable lessons from each other. I’ve enumerated below a few of the things I’ve learned that may benefit John and anyone else in the early stages of treatment for what I hope will be a cure or lasting remission.
1. Don’t rely on second-hand information about your cancer. Seek out reputable information on your own. Ask others with your form of cancer about their experience. Find places online where patients share information and you can ask questions. Make yourself an expert: Knowledge is power.
2. Defy cancer, but don’t deny it. Your diagnosis is what it is, and should not be trivialized. Denial will do you no good. Should the verdict associated with your cancer seem poor, then defy it. Acknowledge the range of possible outcomes to your diagnosis. Don’t pretend that cancer can’t kill. Respect it, but don’t fear it.
3. There is no avoiding the panic and depression that can descend with a diagnosis of cancer. You are right to be worried, but time will give you perspective and you will regain emotional equilibrium. Take on your treatment plan as a personal challenge. How can you best manage it, and still go about the normal business of life? It can be done.
4. Take your immune system seriously. Get exercise when you can, eat healthy food, stay rested and try to sleep well, and avoid stress. Stay positive, as much as you have control over that. I’ve found solace in “defensive pessimism,” which allows me to manage my anxiety. By imaging a range of bad outcomes, defensive pessimists figure out in advance how we’ll handle them. It works for me when optimism fails.
5. Don’t be afraid to vent your spleen—especially with doctors. If you are being treated badly or ignored, let them know. You’re the one who’s sick and they’re being paid very well to make you well. Don’t settle for anything less than what appears to be their best effort.
6. Invite others into your world to share what’s happening. There is enormous comfort in the solicitude of friends and family. If you are inclined to tough this out alone, don’t. You will be disappointed at the lack of attention of some people, and amazed by the solicitude of others. Accept without guilt the kindnesses that are extended to you.
7. Be forgiving of those who can’t cope with your infirmity. Nothing has quite the power to freak people out like cancer.
8. Keep your healthcare team accountable. Don’t expect your doctors to be your friends, but likewise make sure they know you’re a partner in the key decisions to be made about your care. Talk intelligently with them about your cancer. If they know you’re engaged in the process, it will help to keep them on their toes.
9. Live without fear. There is nothing more powerful than the man (or woman) who has reckoned with his own mortality. Once you’ve had cancer, and come to terms with it, there’s little else in the world you need fear. Living bravely allows you to live life fully.
10. Talk to God. Explore your faith. Take comfort and strength in the divine. Life slows down when you’re being treated for cancer, which affords a unique opportunity to read, think and meditate upon the meaning of life and the nature of God. He is patient, and waits for you to speak first.
Perhaps there are others reading this who have insights to offer. If so, please add them below. We’re all pilgrims in this world and need each other to fulfill our quest. Cancer cannot cripple love or shatter hope.