When diagnosed with cancer, I had an immediate, intense feeling that I had just lost control of my life. I know now it’s a feeling many cancer patients and patient supporters experience.
I had always been a “planner,” from scheduling music lessons to deciding what year I would earn a particular university degree. These were itineraries and goals I had set for myself in accordance with what I wanted. As a cancer patient, however, my days and weeks were planned for me: chemotherapy schedules, medication to take, physiotherapy sessions, surgeries, and so on. I felt completely helpless, as if cancer was running me. I didn’t like the power it seemed to have over my life. In a word, I felt VICTIMIZED. Then, I came upon this:
Victim or Survivor?
Being a victim is a state of body; being a survivor is a state of mind
A victim fears hair falling out; a survivor knows bald is beautiful
A victim knows about feeling down; a survivor knows that feeling down is OK
A victim goes to see a doctor; a survivor consults with a doctor
A victim gets caught in despair; a survivor prays
A victim feels helpless; a survivor says “thanks” with dignity and grace
It was only a few weeks after diagnosis when I first read these words and they helped me acquire the right mindset that would get me through my challenge. I realized that even though I had cancer; and even though I had to deal with all the appointments, tests, treatments and surgeries; cancer could not completely control me if I didn’t let it! I could still make choices, and the most important one was if I was going to continue to let feelings of despair overwhelm me, or if I was going to face this challenge with as much attitude and hope as I could muster!
Mind versus body
I concluded that a cancer survivor is not a person who had cancer and is now cancer-free, but is instead, anyone who takes the disease head on without backing down. It’s not being cancer-free; it’s more the mind-set one has throughout the entire “cancer to post-cancer” experience. The cancer may be in the body, but thinking about overcoming it can help fight it.
The minute I knew that chemotherapy was going to make my hair fall out, I decided to shave my head. One of the nurses on staff got the clippers, and with my mom and boyfriend watching, my head was shaved without a moment of hesitation–we even took pictures! I didn’t have to go through the process of watching it fall out bit by bit. It allowed me to focus on treatment rather than pondering how to pull off a comb-over! It is a personal matter, and it is especially difficult for females, but being bald wasn’t bad for me. You really do get used to it!
My first move was to research my cancer (osteosarcoma) and with the wealth of information available from hospitals, research institutions, and cancer organizations, I became “well-educated” in the area of OS. As I read, I compiled a list of questions– spawned by the material I was gathering–for my oncologist. As I consulted with him, he not only gladly answered my inquiries, but also was impressed by my investigation and encouraged that I do more! He informed me that patients all too often don’t ask the questions they are sure to have and are entitled to ask. It is not an insult to the physician; you are asking questions about YOUR disease! The question and answer sessions I had with my doctor eased my concerns and I was better prepared for what lay ahead.
The good, the bad, the ugly–and all the days in between
Depression. I think I was on the verge of being diagnosed with it (or probably was without knowing) just after I had my leg surgery. I was 18-years-old and could not even go to the bathroom without a family member or nurse right beside me! I was confined to my bed or wheelchair, in a constant morphine-induced haze to manage the pain, and all the while dealing with the usual sore mouth, low hemoglobin, stomach sickness and neither platelet nor neutrophil to call my own! I’m sorry, but even the most positive people are entitled to feelings of sadness and doubt.
I resented people who spoke as if I needed to be “fixed” with medication, as if there was something wrong with the way I was feeling. Yes, it was the “low point” of my two-year cancer experience. I slept A LOT, cried, and was just plain angry at my loss of independence. It’s still a source of painful memories. But the important thing is that I eventually came out of it about a month later as the pain subsided and I got used to being immobile.
I still was not content with my situation, but I turned my previous source of sadness into fuel for my recovery. Having cancer, and dealing with everything that comes with it, is sure to make anyone have days where it feels as if all hope and will to fight is gone. This is completely normal. No one should be expected to be courageous and pleasant every day. What matters is that you acknowledge the feelings you have are real, work through them and eventually get back on track with optimism.
Losing my independence was hard to accept at first. But I quickly got over myself and realized that accepting the help of those around me would be the only way to get through it all. I was going to have to “suck it up.” Before long, my bitterness towards being “tended on” subsided, allowing me to see and truly appreciate all that my family and friends were doing for me. They made great efforts to see that I was comfortable, content, entertained and well fed! These actions were not out of obligation or pity, but out of genuine concern and love. How could I refuse that?
I didn’t choose to have cancer, none of us do. But, we can make the choice between victim and survivor. I’ll take survivor.