10 Lessons from Survivors Who’ve Been Where You Are.
By the time the ball drops in Times Square to close out 2017 an estimated 1.7 million people in the USA will have been diagnosed with cancer since the start of the year. Chances you’ve either been diagnosed yourself, know someone who has, or know someone who knows someone who’s walking this journey.
That makes just three degrees of separation folks.
Just three degrees means you’re not alone.
Sitting on the squeaky plastic chairs of the stark, sterile room we’d been told to wait in after my colonoscopy, I was tired and still slightly drugged and loopy. The words “We found a tumor and it’s either cancer or lymphoma” sounded more like “We found a sandwich and it’s either ham or cheese.”
As far as I can remember all I said was “Oh, OK.”
It wasn’t until my doctor called later that week to say the pathology results confirmed cancer: rectal cancer, that I fell apart.
I’d lost both my mum and sister to cancer. My sweet sister a mere six weeks before at just forty-three.
Of course I was devastated at my own diagnosis, but you’d think I’d have some inkling of what to do. But no. Overwhelmed, I had no idea which way to turn or how to create order or make sense out of my swirling, shattered world.
Yes, the doctors set me on a well-worn path of radiation, chemo, and surgery.
Yes, I was following it grateful to be actively fighting the beast within me, but I had no idea what else to do. How to be, what to say, how to pray (without blasphemy myself into oblivion or denying God’s love and existence), who to tell, where to go, or how to talk myself down from the ledge of anxiety I’d started to call home.
Have you or a friend just been diagnosed? Are you floundering, wondering what on earth to do next?
I wish I could give you a sure-fire list of Ten things to make your life easy and pain-free. I wish I could promise a life full of rainbows and unicorns if you just follow these three steps to healing, but I can’t.
Most of all I want to tell you that it will all be OK, but that’s not my place.
So, instead of sitting here making empty wishes, I’ve compiled a list of things you can do that will help. All of them come from people who’ve been where you are. These lessons helped them travel this journey well. I did some of them myself because people told me I should. I did others because it felt like the next right thing. Still others I wish I’d done, but didn’t have the gumption or insight to.
I hope they help you.
Share them with your friends and loved ones who are battling cancer or any other beast diagnosis.
Heck, share them with the lady next door who’s husband’s just died because so many of them are great advice for anyone whose life has just fallen apart.
And please, oh please, share what’s worked for you. Just post a reply in the comments section.
Being a cancer survivor can be oh so lonely. Let’s make it a team sport friends, so more of us not just survive, but thrive.
1. Take One Day at a Time
How you feel today is most likely not how you’ll feel tomorrow; either emotionally or physically. You’re now on the cancer roller coaster and taking each day as it comes, celebrating the highs, feeling all the painful feelings of the lows, and staying present in the present, will serve you well. “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” Matthew 6:34
2. Stay Organized
You’ll be flooded with names of doctors, appointments, medical terms you never thought you’d need to understand and prescriptions to fill. Staying organized will help reduce your stress and a calm bunny is a happier bunny. I wish I’d taken a note-book to every appointment, but I’m as organized as a teenagers bedroom floor! I wish I’d got this cute one with A.A. Milne’s “You are braver than you think…” quote on it.
3. Let It All Out
Whether you’re a closed book or a walking emoji app it’s good to let your feelings out. To be honest, they’ll come out somehow, somewhere, and it’s better to let them out with people you trust or in a journal no one will read than exploding in a volcanic eruption of unexpressed anger at your niece’s Christening party in front of your mother in law. There’s even evidence to say that writing helps us process and move through tough experiences, AND boosts the immune system. Yeah!
4. Ask Questions
I LOVED my doctor. She was the bomb. Yet as much as she explained what was going on, what the plan was and why, I still had questions; lots of question. If your doctor gets huffy and puffy when you ask questions, change doctor. They are there for you and the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask. Not sure what to ask? Check out this great advice from the American Cancer Society and be your own advocate.
5. Accept Help
I learned this the hard way because my strength can be my biggest weakness.
I believed that with enough grit, determination and old school gumption I could handle anything. I was wrong. Not only do we need help when we’re battling this beast, but bringing a meal, mowing the lawn, or taking the kids to ballet are all ways the people who love you can help. Make a list of ways you need help or better yet, ask a friend to be the list keeper. They’ll be thrilled to help I promise. Everyone feels so helpless around us. Got a friend with cancer? Check out my friend Marissa Henley’s book Loving Your Friend Through Cancer: Words and Actions that Communicate Compassion and her website. It’s packed with helpful ideas.
6. Talk to Your Kids
To my kids a cancer diagnosis meant one thing; you’d die, and die quickly. It was what life had taught them. Telling our kids I had cancer was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. We told them early when it was still only a maybe. We told them what we knew and what we didn’t. We told them God would be with us and loves us no matter what. I’m glad we did. It set the tone for how we’d roll – in full disclosure. No half truths. Not sure how to talk to your kids about your diagnosis? Here’s more great advice from the American Cancer Society.
7. Find Your Peeps
Finding a community of fellow survivors was the last thing I wanted. I didn’t want to wear a blue tutu or sit around talking about my feelings and alternative health options. But if I’m honest “all that kumbaya nonsense” as I called it, frightened me. It meant I couldn’t deny the reality of my diagnosis. When I finally gave in and found my people, they became my life line. Mine was a Facebook Group for colorectal cancer patients called ColonTown (I know, isn’t the name great?), but check your hospital, church, or cancer society for places too. Find your peeps, your tribe, your fellow survivors. They will love you well in a way your family and friends can’t. Don’t be a woos like I was.
8. Check out Financial Resources
Or better still, find someone who can help you do that. The financial burden of a diagnosis is tremendous whether you’ve got gold-plated insurance or not. There are resources out there to help navigate the mine field. I’m not an expert and wouldn’t dream of giving financial advice but I can point you to some good resources. Here you go – financial resources to help you manage the cost of your treatment.
9. Reach Out
After chemo, radiation, and surgery, and enduring my second round of chemo I didn’t have the capacity to love others. I had bought into the myth of costly kindness hook, line and sinker. I’m ashamed, but I believed helping others would come at too high a personal cost. One I just couldn’t pay right then. I was wrong. I should have listened to Mother Teresa.
I couldn’t do something great for anyone but I could do something small with great love, and when I did, it was me who was blessed the most. Reach out and love someone friend. It will bless them, help you take your mind of your own journey and maybe you’ll make a friend.
10. Pray Like God’s Your BFF.
Most of us pray as a last resort, some of us pray when we need a parking space (yes, guilty) but how many of us pray like God’s our BFF sitting across from us on the sofa eating Haag n Daaz out of a tub with a spoon? I’m not going to get all churchy on you and sing Jesus Loves Me This I Know, or shame you into a false prayer life, but I do want to encourage you to talk to God. Yes, like He’s your BFF, because then we pray in a way that’s open, honest, unafraid of baring our soul and vulnerable. God’s big enough for our anger and questions. He loves us in a way that means we can’t lose His love by offending Him or not being absent for the last twenty years. Try Him friend. He won’t let you down.
Do you find prayer difficult?
I do, especially when I’m at rock bottom.
For many of us prayer can be a tricky thing and we’re often lost for words. So I wrote one for you. There’s one for you to read, and one for you to fill in the gaps and make your own. You can download it HERE.
Would you like to send this prayer to a friend? Just copy and paste this link and they can grab their own. http://eepurl.com/csG3m1
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