This post is my own 6-step method to living with cancer, as I see it. As you will see in Step 1, this may or may not work for you, but this is what I have found to be true through my own experience. Take it for what it’s worth.
Step 1: Your Story is Your Own
If you ever have to hear the words, “It’s cancer,” you will immediately be launched into your own journey. Yes, you may have known other people with cancer, even intimately, but unless their cancer is the very same type and stage, it’s unlikely things will look the same for you. For example, all of the cancer cookbooks are wonderful… except they all assume you will be going through chemo (Chemo does jack shit for melanoma, in general). I may not lose my hair. I don’t look like a stereotypical cancer patient, but here I am! The same will be true for you. There are many, many different types of chemo and treatments, and what worked for one person may not work for you. Only you and your oncologist will be the experts in you.
Step 2: Anything You Feel is Right
When you feel anger, that’s OK. When you feel sadness, that’s OK. When you feel helpless and lost, that’s OK. It’s all OK. It is healthier to be in each emotion and fully explore it that to ignore the emotion and try to pretend to be “strong,” whatever that is. When I was first diagnosed, within the first 5 minutes, I mean, I was told that I was a warrior. I had never felt less warrior-like in my life. I felt like a fraud and a disgrace to real cancer “warriors” everywhere. Later on, I would come to have that be a part of my emotional repertoire as well, but it was not at that moment. At that moment, I needed to wallow. Know that everything YOU feel is authentic and OK. There is no “right” way to feel. Eventually, you will find your way through the fear, sadness, anger, and everything else and you may begin to feel happy again, even if at certain moments. That’s OK too. Work through everything and find your way back to balance.
Step 3: Accepting Help is (Eventually) Easier
People will want to help. Period. You may not be ready to accept help at the beginning, and that’s OK (see Step 2). However, eventually, you will likely find that cancer is hard. You might need rights to and from treatment. You might not feel like making dinner (for any reason, not just because you are going through chemo. See Step 1). You will definitely need someone you can trust to talk with.
The part people who are in this situation often don’t understand is that other people are offering to help for their OWN SELFISH REASONS. And this is a good thing. Hear me out: People are also kind and generous, don’t get me wrong, but people offer to help because news like this scares people and rocks them to their core. They love you and don’t want bad things to happen to you. Since this IS happening and there is nothing anyone can do about it, they want to do something else to help you. This might mean coming over to vacuum 1x a month. Or watching your kid, or making a meal, or even buying you a soft, cozy sweater because soft things are always nice. Not only does this make you feel goo, but I promise it makes them feel at least 2x as good to help.
So, go ahead. Accept the help because secretly, YOU are really helping THEM.
Step 4: Assemble Your Team (and Find a Field Marshal)
This ties in closely with Step 3. You will need a team. Even if it’s just you and your oncologist, you need people on your side. If you are lucky enough to have offers of help pour in and are willing to accept them (again, Step 3), it will definitely be in your best interest to get someone to manage all those offers because you frankly have better things to do with your time than arrange what time said vacuumers can come over, or who can bring what meal when. A good field marshal is worth their weight in gold for the stress they can take off your plate, and for how great it will feel to have a contact email to give every person who says “If I can help in any way…” You simply say, “Great! Here is the email for the person coordinating people’s help.” This also take the onus away from you having to be the one to ASK for help directly to each person, which I think is often the biggest barrier to Step 3. If you give your Field Marshal a list of tasks that need to be done, he/she can send them out to the list of willing helpers, then Willing Helpers can sign up for the jobs they feel like they can do. It’s a win-win-win.
The best person for the Field Marshal job, I personally think, is someone who is:
- Generally organized (like, can handle making a basic Excel spreadsheet or a pen and paper list, if necessary)
- Protective of you and your time (since they may also need to act as a gatekeeper in certain cases)
- Willing to say yes to add all offers of help, but also willing to say no if they need to be protective of your time and energy (you likely will not want to see 10 people a day in the hospital after a surgery, for example).
- Devoted to helping you and has the time needed to do this. The time needed might not be as extensive as you might think, but it is a commitment and you definitely need to ask before giving this person’s name out as the go-to person for maintaining an email list of willing helpers.
Just as important as a Field Marshal is finding a team of people who “get it.” You will quickly figure out who these people are and are not. The people who don’t get it will tell you to stay strong and think positive, no matter what. They think this is helpful, truly. I’m positive I was one of these people earlier on. The people who do get it will likely have been through something shitty themselves, and so will understand that sometimes shitty things happen, no matter how positively we happen to be thinking. All the positive thinking in the world can’t guarantee a good MRI or PET scan result, and these people will be there with a glass of wine (or more likely, hot chocolate or green tea) to comfort you when you get bad news or are just feeling generally crappy. They will be able to listen with an open heart and not judge you for feeling sad or scared or worried. They are the ones who “get it,” and they are worth their weight in gold.
Step 5: Find Your Level Personal Sharing Comfort Level
Every person will have a different level of openness about their illness. All are OK (see Step 2). Some people, like me, feel OK talking about their poop on the internet (HELLOOOOO, internet!). Other people only want their nearest and dearest to know if they have been in the hospital, and even then not give details. This is also perfectly OK. You will need to determine where you are on the comfort scale, so that you don’t end up feeling pressured into over sharing, or equally bad, feeling unheard if you need to share (or you can blog, like me, so people HAVE to listen, mwuahaha… haha… oh wait, they don’t have to read at all. Oh well!).
I will say that there might be some trade offs with help and with sharing. If you do not like to share, you might not get as many offers of support, simply because people can’t help if they don’t know anything is wrong. They also might not understand the severity if details are lacking. That is not to pressure you into sharing, but just something to consider. I think part of why people have been so forthcoming with help is because they do understand how hard this is because I have been open. But you can find your own balance, I’m certain!
Step 6: Find Your Own “Why”
There is no answer for this one. There is no ultimate “why” as to why any one of us gets cancer. Genetics? Rum luck? That bad sunburn that one summer? Who knows. But the best any of us can do is to pull our own meanings from all of this. Maybe you will realize that you have been spending way too much time attached to your phone, and haven’t been attaching to the people around you. Maybe you will realize that you really want to help people, so you volunteer driving cancer patients when you are done with your own treatment. Maybe you take all your lessons learned and write a pithy blog post in the hopes that others can find it and learn from it.
Whatever it is, find meaning and purpose in this meaningless, senseless act of chance that has landed you with the label of “history of cancer” on your medical chart. It is the only thing that will make sense.
Bonus Step 7: Support In, Kvetch Out
I can’t take any credit for this, but I send people to this article all the time. “How not to say the wrong thing” is genius, especially for those people who don’t “get it.” Go and read it. You will not be sorry.
I hope this is helpful to you. Please pass it along if it is. You never know who might end up needing something like this.