A matter of faith

From my diagnosis back in 2000 to my present day status (three years of post-chemo remission), I have been asked from time to time about my¬† faith. Do I have faith? How do I keep faith? Did my faith ever waiver? Has my faith changed? At first, I found the questions to be quite thought provoking. Faith is not a subject a typical teenager thinks about, or at least, I didn’t. Pondering these seemingly simple questions lead me to answers that helped me through my cancer experience:

1. Have faith in yourself!

I’ve said it before; when I was diagnosed, I never thought, “Why me?” Given my extensive family history of cancer and having had a friend and several acquaintances with cancer, I had long been exposed to the “truths” of cancer before my own diagnosis. I knew some who did not survive, but I also knew many survivors. I had no reason to assume that I would not be a survivor, so I focused on destroying those cancer cells and recovering.

To see this thing through, I knew that first and foremost I had to have a positive attitude and have faith in my own ability to tackle the many challenges that lay ahead. I started every day by telling myself that I had made it this far, to keep going, to trust my feeling that I was going to achieve remission. Sure, there were days (mostly for the month following my limb-salvaging procedure to remove the bone tumors [editors note: Erin talks more about this in her article Victim or Survivor?]) when I questioned my strength (mental, emotional and physical) to carry on and wanted to just lay back and take it all without a fight.

Thankfully, I worked through those quite typical feelings and those low points were far, far outnumbered by days when I felt that I could emerge a survivor. Having faith in your ability to face whatever challenges come your way (cancer or otherwise), gives you the courage to press on and the will succeed.

2. Have faith in the medical team!

Though I’ve been cancer-free since June 2002, I still make a visit to J4A (the medicine unit at the Janeway where oncology patients are treated) every six months when I have my tests and clinic. I spent the better part of the two years of treatment on J4A, so the staff there became my “second family.”

At first, it was overwhelming to meet this large number of people (nurses, oncologists, social worker, oncology nurse and physiotherapist), all of whom would be involved in my treatment and eventual recovery. It was a strange feeling, initially, to put all my faith in people who were complete strangers to me. But, what choice did I have? Here were trained medical professionals, and more importantly, compassionate individuals, who have dedicated their lives to helping people like me. I had to be confident in their knowledge and expertise, so I put all my trust into them and never regretted it. I never once doubted that I was getting the best of care and I was truly blessed to have all these wonderful people at my side throughout those years…they know who they are!

Believing that your doctors, nurses, therapists, and any other professional involved in your treatment, are giving their all to see that you get well is important to the overall outcome. Realizing these people are committed to your health will make you see that there are many people, outside of family and friends, who genuinely care for you.

3. Have Faith in your treatment!

It’s one thing to trust the doctor who decides what protocol you should follow, it’s a whole other issue to trust the drugs that are part of this protocol that will be entering your body! Again, it’s initially intimidating to hear all these chemical names, and even scary to read the pages of side effects and possible long-term effects of these chemical agents. I knew about hair loss and nausea; but hearing loss, liver damage and increase risk for later cancers troubled me! It was either take these drugs that, despite many pitfalls, have proven effectiveness against cancer, or wait around for the cancer to travel, unchecked, throughout my body.

Before my first chemo, I took my protocol description and researched the agents that I would be receiving. What I found was encouraging overall. I read about the same side effects and long-term consequences that my oncologist had already mentioned, but I also read papers pertaining to the extensive experimental trials that outrightly proved the effectiveness of these drugs. I put my fears aside and put faith in the chemical liquid that entered my bloodstream almost every day for the next two years.

I had nausea, barely ever was I without a sore mouth, and now have minor hearing loss, but I’m grateful for those drugs! Most of us put faith into medical science, take the chemo and believe that it will do for us what it has done for many others – kill that cancer!

4. Have your own spiritual faith.

Many people address faith in the religious sense, whether in be in one God, many gods, prayer, angels, and so on. I do believe in a higher power, there is definitely someone or something at work here–I can’t define it.

Being from a Catholic family, I was brought up on “prayers before bed.” I had long forgotten this bedtime ritual by the time I had reached my teens, but from the day I was diagnosed, I started to say a prayer before going to sleep. Not the standard, memorized prayers I was familiar with from church services; just words that asked for strength to get through another day, to help a fellow patient get through the night, or to help grieving parents find solace. I was, and continue to be, comforted by the thought of my grandparents and dear friend “watching over” me from wherever they are. I do believe in guardian angels.

One moment when my spiritual faith was affirmed was the day when I received the results from my second lobectomy. I had already relapsed in my lungs and though receiving chemo for it, CT scans revealed more tumors. The doctors were even more convinced this time than the last: these “lung spots” looked more like tumors than the ones a few months previous that had led to the first lung surgery. So I had the second, more extensive lobectomy, and while we waited those two weeks in ICU, everyone was preparing for the worst.

I cried, I worried, bargained (“Let me live to be 65, just 65!”), but finally decided let things be. I knew that whatever came was part of my life plan, whether it be good news or bad, whether I liked it or not. But, the results came back: negative.

Everyone was astounded and joyous! That this happened, a negative result when physicians were so convinced otherwise, was a sign to me that a higher power was at work. To me, the important point here is to have a spiritual faith of some sort, not necessarily one that conforms to a single religion, but one that works for you and brings you some comfort. That’s what having spiritual faith did for me. It didn’t empower me, didn’t energize me, but it did bring me great comfort when I needed it most.

I have found that four faiths are crucial to recovery from a serious illness: faith in oneself, one’s doctor, one’s treatment and one’s spiritual faith.

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