A friend of mine just got hit with “The Ominous Diagnosis”. And I couldn’t resist giving some extra advice (I know, shocking, right?)
The following is an expanded version of the personal advice I gave him, based on what I learned from my own bout of breast cancer.
Take from it what you will. It may not sound exactly like the advice you’ve heard from others.
My Dear Friend…
I’m so sorry you have cancer. You deserve better.
Lots of people are going to give you advice and sympathy for the next few days. Most will never understand what you’re going through, but they will try to make you feel better. You’ll hear lots of things like “go get ‘em Champ!” and “I’ll be praying for you” and “Never give up!”.
But most people won’t tell you what to expect, because they just don’t know.
I’m here to tell you what the next few days, weeks, months, and years will be like. And I promise not to lie to you.
First things first. You’re about to go through some of the suckiest experiences of your life.
There are not enough words to describe how much this truly sucks.
- It sucks that this happens.
- It sucks that it happens to nice people.
- And it really sucks that it is happening to you.
Life isn’t fair. No honest person has ever told you life was fair. That you got cancer isn’t fair either. But there it is.
And it isn’t anyone’s fault.
Let’s get that part out of the way right now, shall we?
Everyone tries to blame something or someone for cancer. Because it’s really hard to stay mad at something that is growing inside of you. It’s easier to be mad at environmental factors or at yourself for not living “right”.
But it doesn’t really matter what caused or triggered it, does it? Doesn’t change a damn thing and you can’t turn back time and live differently. You can’t go turn off the industrial smokestacks that are bellowing out tons of toxins into our air everyday, and you can’t go back 15 years ago and never eat a cheeseburger either.
Besides, new research seems to indicate that viral infections are the cause. So, remember that really bad flu virus you had that winter? Yeah, that was probably it. Or not. Who knows?
So, get over it, and stop blaming yourself or the world for it. Focus on what’s important right now. The next few weeks and months are the only important things you need to be concerned with.
Here’s what you can expect in the immediate future, so that when it happens, you won’t be shocked.
Stages of Cancer Treatment (From the patient’s perspective)
First is the Education stage. This is the part where everything you could possibly read about cancer will be all you think about. You’re going to try and learn everything you can in hopes of conquering it with your willpower and brains alone.
That’s good. That’s healthy. Knowledge is good. Go for it and get it out of your system.
And then, listen to my first piece of advice…
1. Trust your medical team. They know what they are doing.
Your doctors and nurses have your best interest at heart. They have years of medical experience dealing with this disease, and they want you to get better. They want you to live. If for no other reason, they want you to live because it makes them look good.
So, when they tell you which treatments are advised for your medical condition, do your research if you must. Learn whatever makes you more comfortable with the wisdom of your doctors. Then trust them and do what they think is best for you.
Which brings me to #2:
2. Be patient with the “armchair physicians”
They will attack you in droves now, thrusting out their lotions, potions, and magic drinks that claim to be the “secret cancer cure” no one knows about.
It will be a challenge for you when 100 people approach you with 100 completely different “cures”. They mean well, even though they are being less than helpful.
Try to remember that they believe in their nonsense, and because they believe it, they are trying to be your healer. They think they are going to save your life by telling you all this.
They care about you, but they are dangerous. Thousands upon thousands of people die each year because they fear doctors so much they are willing to forgo actual tested treatments in favour of untested root chewing.
Learn to nod gently and say “Thank you. I’ll look into it”.
3. Be patient with your friends and family when they tell you “let me know if you need anything”, but then disappear completely.
It isn’t easy for them to know what to do for you. They feel helpless. You remind them of their own mortality, and it scares them.
So, understand that if you want help, you have to sacrifice your pride and actually ASK for it. Lean on them whenever possible. Call them and ask them to help you wish housework, groceries, dinner, etc. Give them some busy work. It’s good for you and good for them too.
Let yourself rely on your family and friends. You don’t need to be tough all the time. Rest your head on the shoulders of your family who has always loved you, no matter what. They need to be there for you. Let them.
Do it because if worst comes to worst, this is their one chance to make great memories with you. If you die and you didn’t let them help you, they will feel guilty the rest of their lives.
So, don’t be a jerk. Give them stuff to do.
4. You are going to die, but not today
I don’t mean to be morbid here, but you need to remember that just because you have cancer doesn’t mean you know how you’re going to die. You could still get hit by a bus tomorrow or fall in the shower and split your head open on the faucet.
If you remember this, and remind yourself of it often, you will find that you will fear death less and enjoy life more.
Enjoy the moments. Take extra time to do the things you always meant to do “someday”, and do them now. None of us have a clue when our expiry date is, but we behave as if we’re immortal, always procrastinating, always putting off the fun stuff until “later”. Pretend you are dying tonight and do TODAY what you would do if this was your last day on earth. Trust me. Your life will be a lot more interesting!
5. You aren’t helpless to anything.
Although you cannot control what happens TO you, you absolutely can control how you react to it. That is 100% yours. So, do whatever you need to do to kick cancer’s ass. Do your treatments. Take your meds. Take lots of naps. Give your body a chance to fix itself.
Which brings me to #6
- Laugh at yourself.
- Laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
- Laugh at bad jokes.
- Laugh during comedy sitcoms.
- Laugh at stupid YouTube videos.
- Laugh as often and as loudly as you can.
It will keep you brave.
Once your treatments are all finished, and you can start growing your hair back, and more importantly, start living your life again, there are some things you need to know.
The next few years will be weird for you.
Every headache will make you think “Oh God, it’s metastasized to my brain!!!” If your back hurts, you won’t be able to stop yourself from worrying that it has moved to your bones. It’s scary as hell, because just when you think it’s over…it isn’t.
Try not to worry too much about it. Get back to your life. Enjoy whatever life you’ve got left. Show up for every doctor’s appointment and do your follow up exams.
But don’t stress too much about whether or not it will be coming back again.
If it does, worry about it then and start the whole treatment process again.
But if it doesn’t, make sure you celebrate each day you have on this earth, ok?
Because from the first moment you were diagnosed with cancer, you felt like you were handed a death sentence. And because you were brave enough to go through all those treatments, you survived it, didn’t you?
That means that every single day you live past your original expiration date is an amazing blessing. You need to enjoy it.
That means you need to LIVE with as much joy and fierce determination to survive as you possibly can.
I wish you the best, my friend.
PS: Can you believe it has been almost five years since I was told I had less than a year to live? I love life more now than I ever did before, and I hope the same for you too!