There is no way to prepare for a cancer diagnosis and the treatment whirlwind that ensues. One can read stuff on-line, and the treatment centers have support groups and social workers. None of that prepares one for the emotional assault of cancer. It takes a toll on each person in their own unique way.
Elsewhere I’ll post a review I’ve written of a short, accessible book on getting oneself mentally prepared for chemotherapy. Here I’ll share my own process as I took in the reality of what was about to begin.
From the start, there are many unknown and lots of waiting periods. I was diagnosed in early November. It was nearly two months before I had surgery and the doctors were able to assess how bad my case was and what should be done. I spent those two months in a nearly constant state of anxiety. My blood pressure went through the roof. I often had to take Xanax to get through a day.
I knew some things I needed to do to help take the edge off. I went very quickly after diagnosis to an old friend who does hypnotherapy. She put me under and gave me imagery and phrases to calm my anxiety leading up to surgery. I was unable to practice ordinary mindfulness meditation because my mind was too racy. I bought a set of healing sound CDs and did lying down meditation to get my mind below the verbal mode and to just rest in pure sound.
Within a few days of diagnosis, I called a Buddhist meditation teacher I’d been going on retreats with for many years. He’d survived his own stage 4 cancer a few years earlier. He gave me advice that was useful for him but turned out not to work for me. He told me that especially since I have no family of my own, that I needed to tell everyone I knew about my diagnosis, to gather support from a wide circle. It sounded like good advice and I heeded it.
In hindsight, I wish I’d been much more circumspect about telling people I had cancer.
In fact, the terrible day I received the diagnosis, I was meeting with a client who’s also a therapist, regarding his estate plan. He told me that he had one piece of advice for me and it was this: Stay away from anyone who hasn’t dealt with their own fear.
That turned out to be right on the mark.
The day of my diagnosis, I called a woman friend who I’d been hanging out with a lot. Her immediate response was not to console me but to scold that I had caused my own cancer by leading a “stressful life.” A few days later I called her again. She said my cancer was a good thing because, “Now you can really become a totally different person.” This was not meant kindly. When I got off the phone, I decided to not include her in the loop. She never contacted me to find out how things went.
It has become cliché, and there is a lot written on the many stupid things people say to cancer patients. I was not prepared for the onslaught of idiocy from people I was spending time with, who turned out to not be friends. I’ll write more posts about this. Cancer is not all pink ribbons and charity runs or how everyone gathers around to be so nice to someone in trouble.
The shotgun approach to gathering a circle of support turned out to yield a lot of disappointment.
But in the midst of that, there were bright lights.
I had only recently moved to my neighborhood. I told my backyard neighbor who has since become a good friend. The next morning his wife, who speaks little English, came to my door on her way home from church with a basket of food and promised any kind of help I would need. Before every chemo treatment, she had me let her know, and she brought a basket and homemade chicken soup.
A client-friend, who lives quite a distance, brought her own homemade chicken broth and left it on my porch in a cooler before every treatment.
These acts of kindness came from unexpected sources and I will remember them forever.
In the wake of surgery, when I found out I would need chemotherapy, I signed up for the “chemo class” offered every few weeks at the cancer treatment center in Berkeley.
There may not be anything scarier than knowing one will go through chemotherapy. That’s because until it happens, you don’t know how bad the effects will be or if you’ll be able to handle the recommended dosages and number of rounds. Or, in my case, if I’d be able to keep working or if I’d go bankrupt.
I arrived at the center for the chemo class. I already didn’t look like myself: I had cut my long hair to my shoulders to start to get ready for losing it. I wore a hat to cover the gray roots growing out.
In came a glamorous looking woman, S, wearing the tell-tale wool beret, her make up done nicely, earrings dangling out of the hat. She sat down next to me and, with a Spanish accent, told me she’d already been through two rounds and had not fared well. She’d eaten spicy food after one infusion. She’d had terrible bone pain from the immune-booster shot of Lunasta given the day after each chemo. She was attending the class to learn how she could get through her next rounds easier. She lifted up her hat to show me her bald head and joked that she looked like a baby chick.
The class began, with a panel that included an oncology nurse, an M.D., an on-staff dietician and a social worker. Everyone received a three-ring binder full of information and a copy of the Chemotherapy Survival Guide, an excellent book that I read cover-to-cover about ten times.
The feeling in the room was one of resignation and terror.
S took my hand. We held together tight. In those moments there was an exchange of love and understanding that had a different quality than anything else I had ever experienced.
I will never forget the energy she transmitted to me wordlessly. It helped get me though.