“You have cancer.”
Initially, I didn’t handle the news too well. I reached out and sobbed to my family and friends. I dismissed work and contemplated quitting. I checked and rechecked my life insurance policy and my will.
So much for staying calm.
After about two weeks of freaking out my friends, my family, and myself, I woke up one morning, looked at the sunrise from my bedroom window, and realized that I was still very much alive. Death, apparently, had better things to do. I realized that I did, too.
I started by making my bed.
Later that day, while at work, I searched on YouTube for “Inspiring Cancer Stories”. I arbitrarily clicked on a link to a speech by Jen Sotham, a writer and musician who lived in New York with Stage 4 Melanoma. Her entire speech was fantastic, however at 12 minutes and 15 seconds she summed it up for me in one sentence.
She said, “This disease might kill me, but you will never ever catch me dying.”
That hit home.
Yes, cancer is serious. Yes, if it’s not cured it’s terminal. But life is terminal. Rather than live each day hanging by a thread, I decided that I’d rather swing from it instead.
As it turns out, psychological health has a dramatic effect on cancer. There are over 1,000 completed or in progress clinical studies that have investigated this relationship. Stress and anxiety can arguably increase your risk of cancer, or encourage it to metastasize. As cancer inevitably causes stress, and stress, cancer, I quickly realized that I needed to do something to stop the vicious circle.
Over the last year, with the help of my friends, family, doctors, therapists, and a whole bunch of books I have compiled a list of strategies, or coping mechanisms which have made living with cancer easier for me. Now, I would like to share these with you…
Know a few of your favorite things
We’ve been having family movie night at the Vandervort household lately. It typically starts with Jodie or I selecting a favorite from our youth, presenting it to the kids, getting shot down with scathing remarks, and then, finally, forcing them to watch it anyway else they lose their electronic devices. So, over the holidays we watched “The Sound of Music”. During the first half of the movie, Julie Andrews sings a song to the Von Trapp children to help cheer them up during a thunderstorm. The song is called “My Favorite Things”, and it lists several things that Julie’s character, Maria, thinks of when she is feeling scared or sad. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve probably heard the song. Our kids loved the scene and promptly fell asleep after it ended.
The following morning Jodie and I were awoken by Julie Andrews belting out “My Favorite Things” on our downstairs Google Home. Instead of making me angry, the song brought a smile to my face.
What I’ve realized is that, when dealing with cancer, what makes me happy isn’t always obvious. I tend to lose sight of it amidst all of the chaos going on. Now, like Maria, I keep a list to remind me. When I’m feeling down, or scared, or depressed I look at my list, pick something off of it to do, and generally, it cheers me up.
Be in the moment
This year for our New Year’s resolution Jodie and I both decided to reduce the amount of time we spend on our mobile phones, particularly at dinner time. We both realized that it was not only distracting, but a bad influence on the kids. Now we holster our phones at dinner and try to be in the moment.
When dealing with cancer my mind is anything but in the moment. I find myself constantly worrying about the future, scrutinizing the past for answers, or just letting my mind wander aimlessly.
To help me stay in the moment I do four things :
- I remind myself that the future is unpredictable. I’ve realized that, given the chance, my mind will create the most outrageous scenarios, none of which will likely come true.
- I remind myself that the past can’t be changed. What’s done is done. Learn from it, don’t fret over it.
- When necessary I’ve learned to use a simple timer to limit the amount of time that I have to focus on a particularly stressful task. After, say, 45 minutes I’ll let my mind wander for a few minutes, or go for a short walk before resuming.
- I’ve learned to keep my mind clear by keeping a TODO list. Rather than waste time worrying about, say, renewing a prescription, I offload the task to the list. Later, when I have time, I sort the list by importance and start checking checking things off.
Don’t take statistics at face value
My wife, Jodie, and I talk about cancer a lot these days. One night, not so long ago, after tucking the kids in, I made the recurring mistake of looking at survival statistics on my mobile phone while getting ready for bed.
“What?”, Jodie asked me.
“Nothing….”, I replied.
“WHAT!?!”, Jodie asked me again, a little more annoyed.
“I made the mistake of looking up survival statistics for late stage prostate cancer on the web again. It’s not pretty.”, I admitted.
After glancing over my shoulder Jodie said, “We’ve talked about this before. Statistics are just an average based on a wide variety of people and ages.”
She took the phone from my hand and continued, “Not everyone has access to good health care, either. And, a lot of people don’t take care of themselves. You exercise, watch your diet, and you are doing great at keeping your stress under control. You are also much younger than the typical prostate cancer patient”
“Good point, honey. My doctors are top-notch, too. And, the statistics are probably based upon old data.”, I responded.
“Exactly! One of your doctors even said that by the time those statistics are published they are ten years out of date.”, she said.
“10 years is a long time considering the rapid pace of cancer research”, I agreed.
“Yes! So stop looking at the statistics!”, she demanded, with the hint of a smile.
Reassured, I was able to sleep well that night and learned three valuable things :
- An individual is not a statistic.
- Statistics don’t lie, but they don’t always tell the whole truth, either. Never take them at face value.
- Don’t research cancer stuff at bedtime.
Join the Club
Within a day after my diagnosis I received a phone call from Pat Sheffler, another dad in my neighborhood who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer a year-and-a-half earlier. Later that evening I got another call from David Ederer, a family friend who had been successfully battling prostate cancer for over 20 years. I spent over two hours on the phone that day talking to two complete strangers who only wanted to help me. I’ve been in contact with both men ever since.
I’ve heard prostate cancer referred to as “the club that no one wants to join”. It’s true, no one wants cancer, but the amount of unsolicited support that I’ve gotten has been nothing short of amazing.
For me, joining the club meant embracing the disease, admitting that I need help, and talking openly to others. Membership has reassured me that I’m not alone, that I’m not trailblazing a new path, and that people just want to help. It’s also inspired me to help others with their fight as well.
Cancer is a loss of control. It’s my own cells recklessly growing and dividing. It’s side effects from treatments. It’s plans and vacations put on hold. It’s not knowing “why”.
The loss of control is frustrating, but part of the healing process, at least for me, was to acknowledge it and move on. And, after accepting a loss of control, I was determined to take control of what I could. I didn’t want to be just a helpless passenger on my road of treatment, I wanted to be an active participant.
What I realized is that although a doctor can prescribe medication, surgery, and chemotherapy, they can only suggest lifestyle changes. Lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise were two things that were entirely up to me. They were two things that I could take control of in my cancer treatment.
As I’ve always been pretty good about exercising, I decided to focus on diet instead. Fortunately, my wife, Jodie, already had a head start after reading “How Not to Die” by Dr. Michael Greger. Since taking control, my wife and I have spent countless hours researching what I should and should not be eating. In a sense we decided that I would perform my own “chemotherapy”, but instead of injecting my body with harsh chemicals, I would nurture it instead with cancer-fighting food.
Does it make a difference? I think it does. The number of research studies on nutrition and cancer seem to indicate that it makes a difference, too. Regardless if it does or not, the act of taking control of one facet of my treatment has made me feel a whole lot better.
“I’m not done yet.”
These four words are incredibly important.
If you have things to do, it gives you a reason to live. If you have a reason to live, you have one less reason to die. I have lots of things to do, and each day I have more.
Long term goals help me visualize myself alive and healthy in the future. Cancer, I believe, hates this, so I try and set my long-term goals as far out in the future as possible just to rattle its chain. My daughters graduation? Yup, I’ll be there. Walk them down the aisle? Of course. That family vacation to Hawaii we’ve been trying to do? Of course I’ll be there; let’s go snorkeling, too.
Short term goals keep me focused or, more accurately, distracted from all of the cancer sh*t that is going on. Completing a short term goal yields a sense of accomplishment, or a burst of positivity, too. I feel that cancer abhors the positive so I try to set lots and lots of short-term goals. My first goal every morning, as it has been for a while now, is to make my bed. From there my goals obviously get more complicated, but every time I finish one I feel just a little better.
So, go away cancer, I have work to do. I’m not done yet. I have goals.
Listen to your inner voice
It’s the voice of reason and sympathy and it’s incredibly easy to ignore, especially when you are angry, in pain, or frustrated.
It’s the voice that keeps your middle finger from standing to attention when someone cuts you off in traffic. It’s the voice that rationalizes that lingering hip pain is more likely due to a bad night’s sleep than cancer. It’s the voice that urges you to get up and take a walk when you’ve been struggling with something at work for too long.
Since I started listening to my inner voice it had saved me from a whole lot of grief. I really wish I started listening to it sooner.
Organize your thoughts
I get anxious when my mind is disorganized. When my mind is disorganized I find myself thinking about the same things over and over again to ad nauseum. Unfortunately, nothing has cluttered my mind more than cancer. The sheer amount of information that I have had to absorb from my doctors appointments alone has brought my mind to a screeching halt at times.
Fortunately, I’ve found that keeping a journal helps.
By keeping a journal I can write my thoughts down and spend time organizing them and validating their credibility. Later, when the same thought inevitably pops up again, I can consult my journal, and more easily dismiss things.
Meditation, Yoga, and Prayer
A calm mind is essential when dealing with diseases such as cancer. I realized this after being prescribed physical therapy to help with the pain caused by, what my doctors thought at the time, was Prostatitis. Every session my therapist would throw more “exercises” at me. By my sixth session I was stretching and breathing for up to 45 minutes a night. And you know what? It worked! My pain greatly diminished. Later I would realize that what I was essentially doing was yoga and meditation.
After reading “Explain Pain” by David Butler and “The Mindbody Prescription” by John E. Sarno I began to understand importance of maintaining a calm mind better. I learned that the opposite of a calm mind is an anxious mind. An anxious mind causes tension; think grinding teeth, clenching fists, and upset stomachs. This tension, over time, causes pain. And pain, in turn, causes even more anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle that builds and builds upon itself and, after understanding how it worked, I could finally work on breaking the cycle.
Yoga and Meditation were a good start, but pain isn’t always caused by anxiety. Pain can also be the result of disease or an injury. If you’re lucky a doctor can identify the causation, patch you up, and send you on your way. However, sometimes the path to health isn’t always a straight line.
That’s where prayer helps.
Early on, when I was suffering through Prostatitis, I read “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” by Dale Carnegie. In it he suggested prayer to help alleviate stress and anxiety. God, he suggested, can help shoulder burdens that can’t be shared with anyone else. I filed Mr. Carnegie’s advice in the back of my mind, but being agnostic, I didn’t take it to heart for several more months. It was only later, after I started coming home from work in pain-induced panic attacks and relying on prescription drugs to help me sleep that, in desperation, I revisited his advice and started praying.
Prayer has helped me tremendously, particularly after I was diagnosed with Prostate Cancer. Regardless of who or what you believe in – whether it be God, Allah, the Buddah, or the Great Spaghetti Monster in the Sky, it really helps to have someone to talk to about things that can’t be said, to ask questions of that can’t be answered, to ask favors of that can’t be granted, and most importantly, to have faith in, and trust that, in the end, everything is going to be okay.
Till next time.
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