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Words for Thought: The cancer experience

Recently a friend contacted me about her sister: she had just learned that she has cancer. Since I just recently finished going through cancer treatment — surgery, chemotherapy and radiation — I am completely awed by the intensity of the experience. Here are the thoughts I shared with my friend and perhaps others will find them helpful.

For relatives and friends, protect your own feelings — know what you can and can't deal with. If you can't bear certain aspects, be honest that this is difficult for you to deal with, but you appreciate her wanting to confide in you. Lead her to resources that can help, there are so many, especially the American Cancer Society. I called them up at 2:00 in the morning several times wrestling with some issue.

If it were me, I would say to her that there is no way to go through this without confronting your mortality — it is there in your face. These fears are normal. Some thoughts besides faith that helped me were:

  1. None of us knows when or how our life will end. The getting run over by a bus tomorrow factor is still there. You may or may not die of this disease; you don't know, nobody knows. This is an uncomfortable reality to deal with. There are plenty of reasons to cry, and to mourn the loss of your sense of vitality.

  2. Most of the studies you read, and the statistics quoted to you are five to ten years old. Again, no one can predict what will happen to you.

  3. The odds can be one out of five or one out of ten. It doesn't make any difference as long as you are the “one.” Again, no one knows or can tell you what will happen. All you know is what might happen, not what will happen. Try to put your faith in God; he does not want you to die or to suffer, but is there to help you through this journey no matter how it turns out.

  4. The cancer experience is actually quite beautiful; try to take the good out of it. Your body, mind and spirit will be changed. It is like a second adolescence getting used to a new body, new life style. You are forced to grow, and you will. You do have choices about how you respond to the experience.

  5. Have you been saving for a rainy day? It is raining. Accept the help, comfort and sympathy others will bring to you, accept it gracefully. Don't try to go through this by yourself, or with stoicism. It will only make matters worse. Part of the beauty is experiencing the love and comfort of others on the very deepest level. You are lucky to actually experience how much others care about you; you might otherwise never have known. Some people will disappoint; forgive them, cancer is very hard to deal with. It is obvious to everyone that it could be them, and they may not be ready to confront this. You may find yourself helping others to deal with your cancer.

  6. Although you may be hard on yourself, nearly everyone is, remember this is real. You are going through a miserable experience, and no one can go through it for you. Crying is normal. Fear is normal, feeling sorry for yourself is normal, feeling sad about the possibility of dying sooner than you thought is normal. You don't know how this journey is going to end: cancer is a powerful experience, and terrifying at times.

  7. Believe it or not, once you are on the other side of this, you'll find that ending therapy is really quite scary. It is like being dropped from a plane: you have a parachute, but you don't know if it is going to work or not. Now the problem will be facing life -- isn't that something.

  8. When you are able, be realistic. Get your affairs and your relationships in order. Get rid of all that baggage you are holding on to; you are not really going to need it, and you'll be better off without it.

  9. A lot of information will be thrown at you. You don't have to understand it all at once. Some things really aren't understandable until you get to the point were you need it. Review the information you need at the time; ask questions, no matter if it has already been explained to you.

  10. Get out and do things as much as you are able. It is good to have something to talk about besides cancer, like a movie or something. It helps others, and it helps you to get away from it.

Love one another.

Kathy Hughes is a retired librarian and also has a PhD in anthropology. She lives in Manlius with her two cats.

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