Killing Time

Posted on: April 17th, 2014 by
1

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“I’m just killing time.”
“This session was a waste of my time.”
“All I have is time” (usually said with exhaustive surrender)

We hear these expressions regularly. Heck, even in Chicagoland a popular radio station has a Kill a Half Hour segment where trivia is discussed. Kill a Half Hour irks me, so I switch radio stations when this segment comes on.

Even a half hour is so precious. Why kill it?

I know I’m being quite literal here, and that “killing time” is just an expression.

Or is it?

I used to think so before cancer came wiping its filthy feet on my doormat.

This disease and its treatments gave me a rude awakening – and immense perspective. I quickly learned how vital and fleeting time is and how life is too important, too precious to live in perpetual stress.

I rebuilt my shattered life. You can read about it here and here and here.

It took cancer-colored glasses for me to truly see the picture plainly.

Time is precious.

This no-brainer cliché must be emphasized time and time and time again. I know cancer survivors who take the gift of time for granted. All they do is complain, complain, and complain, and grouse about the petty issues that populate life’s landscape.

And while I reserve the right to get disgruntled and angry and vocal about cancer’s collateral damage, the truth is, I’m also a positive person who savors the moment.

And, now, it’s time to reveal my superpower.

I have the power to harness life in freeze frame and slow down my perception of time. I separate and savor each moment I snuggle with my daughter as we read books, as she climbs in the playground, when she sings with a light heart, and when she successfully (or not so successfully) jumps over a puddle.

Time also seems to slow down as I paint, exercise, and read books. I’m currently reading War and Peace (more on this in a future post). Thus far, I’ve read 28 chapters and I’m only 9 percent done. Although it’s a wonderful book, it’s been daunting and I’ve almost given up several times.

So I am really tapping deeply into my superpower so I can savor each word and enjoy all this book’s moments. Why rush to finish this novel?

Why rush through life at all?

We should exalt time, not aim to kill it.

How do you feel about time?

What is your perspective on this issue?

Do you have any superpowers you’d like to share?

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Go Back to Medical School, Dr. Death

Posted on: April 4th, 2014 by
17

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My last post focused on the “little” lies people told me to encourage me when newly diagnosed with breast cancer. This post is about another lie, a whopper told by a second-opinion oncologist that threw me into a swirling inferno.

The first oncologist I saw was cautiously optimistic that, with the right treatment, I had a decent prognosis. I felt somewhat reassured, but not completely, given the new cancer diagnosis and panic episodes. However, I knew right away that this oncologist was special: he was brilliant, talked to me at my level without being condescending, and he was kind and treated me with the utmost respect.

Although I felt this would be a great doctor-patient relationship, I wanted a second opinion.

Just because.

After what seemed like forever, the second-opinion oncologist entered his office with an air of superiority (he never examined me) and sat down at his desk. In his hand were my file and a stack of statistics printed from various sources. He barely looked at me. I was hoping he’d concur with the first oncologist, but I was in for a shock.

He kept changing his mind about my prognosis. From good to bad to good again, based on all the material he was reading.

I became an ensnared animal, wide-eyed with terror.

He said that if I opted for his treatment (so different from the first oncologist’s recommendation), I might live longer. But then his dark side took over, and he told me that my prognosis was poor. Then he changed his mind and restated that his treatment plan was the only hope of saving my life.

I felt desperate to start his treatment plan immediately, but I was so confused and kept thinking of how much I loved the first oncologist. My first burning question was whether I would live, but I had another question almost equally as urgent:

Would I be able to have a baby after treatment? My first oncologist thought it might be possible.

He paused and callously said, “Don’t you think it’s unfair to have a baby, only to orphan it?”

I felt the wind knocked out of me – literally. I don’t think I said much for the rest of the appointment and nodded dumbly as he opened the door with a final, “Don’t wait too long to make your treatment decision. Your life depends on it.”

I waited to get into the elevator before I started sobbing uncontrollably. I was shaking in terror. When I got home, I called the first oncologist crying. He reassured me and told me to come in as soon as possible. He was my salvation, calming me down enough to make an appointment with him. Luckily he has been my oncologist ever since that fateful day.

And now here’s a letter to the second-opinion oncologist; I’d send him a snail mail letter, but I am clueless as to his name or location. Panic does that.

Dear Dr. Death:

During our visit, you sentenced me to a pretty immediate death. Now, 13 years later, I’m still alive, no thanks to you and your incompetence. My oncologist, Dr. B, took me from despair to hope, the hope you denied me.

My life has had its ups and downs. Survivorship has been very difficult at times, but there’s been joy – joy you (or I) never thought I’d experience.

First of all, I’m a mother! It didn’t happen the way I thought it would, as chemotherapy stole my fertility. But I adopted a beautiful baby from China – and I have no plans to orphan her.

I left a bad marriage and developed wonderful friendships.

I left a horrible career and am now established in another one that gives me way more satisfaction and joy.

I’ve rid myself of toxic relationships and only devote my time to positive, like-minded people.

I’ve fallen in love with art again and have emerged as an artist.

You can’t take these gifts of life away from me. I hope you never have to endure the type of hell you put me through. You need to return to medical school to learn about cancer diagnoses and, well, medicine and stuff – and, oh, how to treat patients.

I defy you, Dr. Death, forever and always. I defied you when I tearfully fired you.

And each day I’m alive and experience joy I defy you.

Have you had a doctor give you an inaccurate prognosis/diagnosis?

Have you had a doctor with poor interpersonal skills/bedside manner?

I would like to hear your stories.

Me and Ari

Starting a landscape painting commissioned by my brother

Starting a landscape painting commissioned by my brother

The final product drying in my garage

The final product drying in my garage


The Lies They Told Me

Posted on: March 28th, 2014 by
33

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, people lied to me.

Oh, the lies came with the best intentions, sparked by genuine caring – and, of course, positive group-think.

Before I ever met my oncologist, I called a cancer hotline.

“I was just diagnosed with breast cancer, and I think I’m going to die,” I said. The person on the other end, a “survivor,” immediately reassured me “No, honey, you are not going to die. I had breast cancer, and I’m just fine.”

The woman meant well. She wanted to quell my panic.

She wanted me to live and for me to believe I was going to live.

But she did me a disservice by lying to me. I’m sure she didn’t think she was telling an untruth. I think she believed what she was telling me. Which makes it a lie fueled by ignorance. After all, she was no doctor and knew nothing about the nature of my cancer.

I was naïve at the time of the phone call, being new at this cancer stuff and all, so I clung to those words, “you are not going to die” as if they were scripture.

Now, looking back, I wonder if they were scripted.

And I have to wonder whether this organization conveyed a “think positively” vibe to every caller. Probably – fueled by the myth that breast cancer is curable.

How many other callers heard that they wouldn’t die, only to find themselves dying of metastatic breast cancer? How many people, “survivors” for the time being, have a false sense of security because of their interactions with those who tell them they aren’t going to die?

Just to make sure I covered all my bases, I called another hotline. The woman, another “survivor,” told me that I would live and to be positive.

Now, I am not against positive thinking in general. Having a positive attitude is a wonderful thing. But I loathe blatant lies that cause harm to patients – either through false hope or helping to create uplifting survivorship stories.

Telling people to think positively about their disease is harmful.

Our culture is saturated with lies about breast cancer.

Years later, after a hellish regimen of simultaneous chemotherapy and radiation treatments (which my oncologist had told me would just make me a “little tired”) and deforming lumpectomies, I was less naïve about the lies people tell.

The radiology department made a mistake. A clerk had forgotten to send my mammogram films to my surgeon before my follow-up appointment. So I called to complain and to make sure they were sent to him so he could have a look. I emphasized that I already had a history of cancer and why it was imperative he received the films:

“This is so important. I could have a recurrence, and he might never know – just because the films weren’t delivered,” I said, without thinking about the irony that a mammogram had missed my tumor in the first place.

The person on the other end of the phone said, “Aw. You won’t get a recurrence. You will be just fine.”

Was she on crack?

This time, I could read between the lies. And I blasted her: “You are in NO position to tell me this! You do not know whether I will have a recurrence,” I said. “Send those films!”

Years later, after a terrifying MRI scare and a bilateral mastectomy with DIEP flap reconstruction, I heard comments from well-meaning people about how lucky I was to have a free “tummy tuck” and “boob job.”

This is a lie. A) I wasn’t feeling lucky and B) This was not cosmetic surgery. As anyone who has had a mastectomy can attest, it is no walk in the park.

But I suppose it is more glamorous to drape the truth in a lie that I opted for the surgery to enhance my physique.

The thing is, from the very beginning, breast cancer patients are inundated with messages of positive thinking. We see all the smiling faces at walks and races. If one is lucky enough to have lived, it’s great to put on a smile and say she/he is a triumphant survivor.

Breast cancer is viewed by the public as this curable, sexy, fun sort of thing. Tell that to the 40,000 people or so who die each year from metastatic disease.

Breast cancer is the envy of people with other cancers. I wrote a post about it here. What gets lost is the real suffering of breast cancer patients.

Lost in a sea of positive-think lies.

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Have people lied to you when you were diagnosed or treated for cancer? If so, how? I want to hear your stories.


Kohl’s: Cash Rich, Ethics Poor

Posted on: March 14th, 2014 by
15

I had found out about Kohl’s partnership with Komen, ironically, when I was at Kohl’s.

An ever-loyal customer, I was at the cashier’s with my purchases, when I was handed Kohl’s Cash and told that a portion of my money would go to Susan G. Komen to find a cure for breast cancer.

I said, “I’m a breast cancer ‘survivor.’” The unknowing cashier — who was probably expecting a feel-good story about survival and my everlasting gratitude and allegiance to Kohl’s – said enthusiastically, “Oh, that’s wonderful!” I added, “You know, I was lucky. I’ve known too many people who weren’t as lucky.”

She got really quiet, fidgeted a bit, and then started to prattle on about how much I would save on my next purchase with Kohl’s, thanks to Kohl’s Cash. But I wouldn’t let her talk of saving money and breast cancer without her paying a price.

“I know of so many who didn’t make it,” I continued. “Huh?” she said. “They died,” I said. She averted her eyes, quickly gave me my receipt, and I left the store, feeling like I had just been had.

I walked to my car in shock but with enough wits about me to realize that the cashier really had nothing to do with this partnership.

Stealing the Elephant

During my interaction with the cashier, I was so shocked, I barely noticed an in-store announcement, something about a pink elephant. It sounded familiar, yet I couldn’t place it.

Later, I realized that the retailer stole and deliberately misused a campaign from METAvivor, an organization that creates awareness of metastatic breast cancer – the kind that kills – and raises funding for research.

In October 2012, METAvivor’s campaign communicated that metastatic breast cancer was largely ignored. It showed a graphic of an elephant and reads “During the ‘pink haze’ of Breast Cancer Awareness Month Don’t ignore Stage IV. The [elephant graphic] in the Pink Room”

It turns out that Kohl’s plagiarized METAvivor’s elephant in the pink room campaign. Besides showcasing a ridiculous imitation of METAvivor’s elephant, here is the Kohl’s-blundered version: “It’s [breast cancer itself] the (pink) elephant in the room. Let’s not ignore it. Together we can start the conversation about breast cancer.”

Hullo. We don’t need any more conversations about breast cancer. I mean, who the hell isn’t aware of breast cancer? We need a cure, and we need to be aware of metastatic breast cancer. Right now, people with metastatic disease are being swept under the proverbial pink carpet.

This. Must. Change.

Oh, and that’s not all, folks; Kohl’s thievery gets more bizarre. On the same web page a picture of supposedly sold-out pink elephant pendants are prominently displayed alongside the message, “We thank you for supporting the fight against breast cancer.”

Aw, shucks, Kohl’s. Won’t you please sell more pink elephant pendants so more of the general public can wear stolen intellectual property?

I’ve been used to the Susan G. Komen shtick for awhile now, but the Kohl’s debacle really took me off guard. And I’m not surprised that Kohl’s won’t do the right thing by admitting its elephant “faux pas” and no longer using the slogan.

So, now that I have my wits about me, I’m:

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returning the merchandise,

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cutting up my Kohl’s credit card,

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telling Kohl’s to remove me from its mailing list,

and no longer shopping at Kohl’s.

Kohl’s slogan is “Expect Great Things,” but it should be changed to “Expect Distasteful Things.”

Something is rotten in the state of retail. And right now it is Kohl’s.

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Related posts, many which illustrate the graphics discussed in this post.

Komen & Kohl’s Klueless Kampaign
Integrity Always Matters
Outrage!
The PINK White Elephant
Facepalm

Please feel free to weigh in on this “pink elephant” campaign and/or Kohl’s partnership with Komen.

Update: According to METAvivor’s blog dated March 13, 2014, “Neither Kohl’s nor Komen acknowledged that the campaign infringed on METAvivor’s rights, much less agreed to discontinue it. Instead, both Kohl’s and Komen claimed lack of knowledge of METAvivor’s use of the Elephant in the Pink Room, and tried to justify their actions.”


The Tooth Fairy Just Won’t Visit Me

Posted on: February 12th, 2014 by
4

Last week I had a bottom back molar extracted. My dentist and oral surgeon just knew it as a molar that had to come out. But I knew the truth behind the tooth: it was pulled because of what I did as a teenager.

Here’s my confession.

***

Like many teenagers, I wore braces. Unlike many teenagers, I spent most of my free time volunteering at an animal hospital because I desired to be a veterinarian.

(Trust me, both facts are related.)

Wearing braces sucks. Besides enduring the physical pain of straightening crooked teeth, I had to cope with the braces and wires cutting me.

If you’ve ever had braces, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

The orthodontist had given me wax to form over the offending hardware, thereby lessening the pain, but it was minimally effective. I kept swallowing or spitting out wax that had fallen off.

I endured this trauma for about a year until I decided to do something about it.

For several days, a wire had been cutting into my inside cheek. It hurt. I was at the animal hospital, of course, when I came up with a brilliant idea. I had been watching surgeries on dogs and cats for a couple of years, now, and decided that bending the wire with a sterilized surgical tool was the solution to my teenage-dental angst.

So, one day, I opened a pack of sterilized surgical tools, took a hemostat, and went into the bathroom to bend the wire cutting into the back of my mouth. What happened next was, as you predicted, a disaster.

I accidentally cut the wire.

The shock of my mistake reverberated in my mouth.

On my way to an emergency appointment with my orthodontist, I was scared. He was excellent at his craft, a perfectionist, but the stickler did not tolerate patients doing their own orthodontia work. He was shocked that my biting into a pretzel would’ve done this kind of damage (OK I lied to him).

To re-hardwire my braces, he had to do a lot of reworking. And in removing a metal cap around a lower right molar, it happened.

He accidentally chipped the tooth.

During my emergency appointment with my dentist, I felt regret as he filled the rather large cavity. “Um…you might eventually need a root canal on this tooth,” my dentist said.

Fear. I was petrified of getting a root canal.

Years after my braces came off, I did need a root canal and a crown on this tooth. Years after my root canal, I had an abscess that required surgical attention. And just last week, the tooth was pulled. I will need a bridge to create a façade of a real tooth.

Through this experience, I learned the following lessons that I’m happy to share with you:

1. Never practice orthodontia unless you are a licensed orthodontist.
2. Never practice orthodontia at an animal hospital.
3. Stay away from hemostats unless you are qualified to use them.
4. What you do as a teenager can haunt you as an adult.
5. If you mess with dental-related issues, tooth karma will come back to bite (or not bite) you.
6. Being unconscious for a tooth pulling is the way to go.
7. Don’t piss off dental professionals.

Do you have any dental/medical stories to share? I would love to hear your stories. Hemostat


‘My Cancer Is Worse Than Yours’

Posted on: February 6th, 2014 by
10

Pancreatic Cancer Action just played dirty.

Its new video campaign shows a person saying he wished he had testicular cancer and another person saying she wished she had breast cancer. The message being that both individuals have something far worse than either cancer – pancreatic cancer.

I have a friend with Stage IV pancreatic cancer, and another friend’s mom died of the disease. Pancreatic cancer is a horrible disease, and it’s a shame there’s insufficient funding available. I’ve also had friends die of other cancers, including breast cancer.

That being said, it is never a good practice to say one’s cancer is worse than another’s. Metastatic cancer of all kinds kills. Regarding breast cancer, it’s not uncommon for people diagnosed with early stage to develop metastases. And, contrary to popular belief, there is no cure for breast cancer.

There are no good cancers.

Comparing two cancers is like comparing apples to cats.

Supporters of PCA tout the video campaign as instilling “shock value” to get the conversation going. These supporters insist the outrage over this campaign is because people are misunderstanding it. First, this video gets a feud – not a conversation – going.

It is divisive.

Second, the campaign’s goal seems clear: to express cancer envy toward what the organization and many people perceive to be the “good” cancers: breast and testicular.

As someone in the breast cancer realm of things, I can tell you, I have heard all types of cancer envy hurled at me. People have expressed jealousy that the disease that affected me gets all the attention, thanks to the high-publicity pink washing.

PCA denies responsibility for this video campaign by saying these testimonials are the views of real people with pancreatic cancer. I’m sure many moving examples from people with pancreatic cancer could’ve been used instead, but PCA chose not to do so. When the organization put its name behind a piece, then in reality, it is condoning it.

I had no idea that people turned upside down by a cancer diagnosis were in the Whose-Cancer-Is-Worse competition. We should all be united in agreeing that all cancer is horrible.

Once we start competing, everyone loses.


Wearing A Game Face

Posted on: February 5th, 2014 by
15

I’m a relatively content person. Yet doctors’ visits conjure up sadness and fear and grief. Since cancer turned my world upside down, appointments with physicians are so difficult.

I appreciate my physicians tremendously. Besides their high competence, they have superior people skills. They talk to me as my doctors, offering sound medical advice, but they don’t treat me like a patient.

They treat me like family.

These genuine, caring, decent people always take the time to chat with me. No matter how incredibly busy they are, these individuals treat me like I’m the only patient they have.

Their kindness helps ease the pain of having to see them.

My doctors enjoy my company, I think. I smile, laugh with them, telling them about my latest projects. I tell them about my daughter and show pictures. I tell them how well I’m doing and how wonderful and awesome my life is. This is true.

But not completely.

***

What my physicians may not know is that at each appointment I put on my game face.

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I smile and laugh with them.

But I won’t tell them that a Pandora’s Box of fears fly out of my mind with fury at each appointment. More often than not I want to cry, and I need to keep flashbacks at bay. I am always battling to get out of the ugly place where fear-demons live.

After most appointments, I calmly get in my car, and that’s when it all hits. I sob uncontrollably – partly because of relief that another doctor’s visit is complete and partly because keeping my emotions in check drains me.

With such supportive medical professionals, you would think I could really dig down deep, open my full heart to them, and tell them how truly haunted I am. Instead, I put on that game face and tell them happy things, things I want them to hear:

My life is complete.

My life is great.

I have accomplishments and fun hobbies that are always pleasant to talk about.

Truth is, I want to be a medical success story – their medical success story.

I’m afraid if I show my fear, maybe they will view my fears as doubts of their competence.

I’m afraid if I reveal my inner fears, medical professionals might think I’m unappreciative.

Maybe if I cry in front of them, they will perceive me as weak.

And I won’t show the deep core of my fears for another reason – I view each doctor’s appointment as the opportunity to grapple with my demons – and to win the battle by not falling apart in front of my physicians. I see this for what it is, some silly competition with my greatest competitor – myself.

Perhaps if I allowed my doctors into my world just a bit more, if I allowed them to see me falling into the abyss of fear – they might just catch me.

***

So I’ve been trying a new strategy lately. I’ve allowed some doctors to see the cracks in the facade. After all, one can keep up a positive performance for only so long before the wear-and-tear of omission begins to show.

I recently began to hint to doctors that things are not all peachy on planet Gainer. I admitted to my primary care physician, “Whenever I get an ache or pain, I get scared I have cancer.” She was supportive, reassuring me that I am not alone, as this is a common reaction of patients affected by cancer. I once confessed to my oncologist that I was feeling vulnerable. He was sweet and said, “Of course you feel that way. After all you’ve been through, I can understand that.”

And, finally, I’m learning that when I reach out to my doctors, they reach out to me.

Do you disclose your fears to doctors? Why or why not?

How is your relationship with your doctor(s)?


Benign!

Posted on: January 29th, 2014 by
7

As many of my readers know, my mom had a recent medical scare. A mammogram had revealed an abnormality, but an ultrasound ruled out a malignancy.

As I said in a previous post, “benign” is becoming my favorite word.

I thank everyone in cyberspace for their support and prayers. The collective support of this fabulous online community buoyed me up when I was down.

While I am beyond relieved at the good news, I don’t kid myself. Breast cancer is wily and insidious. No one is exempt from this disease, which has left me looking over my shoulder a bit too much for my liking.

While I was holding my breath to see what would unfold regarding my mother’s health, I had lots of time to think about cancer, survivorship, and my terror.

Mostly I thought of how important my mom is to me and how grateful and lucky I am to still have her in my life.

During my teen years, my mom and I cemented our friendship. We frequently had “ladies’ nights out” and shopping days. We would talk freely about our lives. One day, commuting to a local shopping center, a classmate on the same bus came up to me to chat. A few days later at school, the classmate asked me, “Why didn’t you introduce me to your sister?” When I told my mom, we had a great laugh, and she was understandably flattered.

When I was newly separated from my husband, she was in Chicago helping me get settled into my apartment. We shopped for furniture, and the sight of us hauling a brand new coffee table into the building (thank goodness elevators were on the premises!) must have been comical. She also happened to be visiting me when my divorce was finalized. During my separation and divorce, she kept me too busy to wallow in self-pity.

When her new granddaughter, just-arrived from China, sobbed in fear of my parents, my mother tried to soothe her. Back in the day of Ari acclimating to me, followed by acclimating to those close to me, Ari was a champion crier. Per my mom’s advice, we put the baby in her umbrella stroller and walked her around my parents’ neighborhood and even in the house. And those tears didn’t stop my parents from taking Ari to a photographer so our family could have its first family portrait of the new addition. Ari even managed a huge smile for the camera.

Nowadays, my daughter adores her grandparents. My mom and dad spend ample time with Ari, who was a featured “performer” at a “talent show” in my parents’ home. Ari draped a towel over her one night, and my mom gave Ari her spotlight by shining a flashlight on the part of the floor where Ari was standing.

Ari has not forgotten.

My mom and I speak at least once a week, and I love the sound of her voice. I’m hoping I can continue to hear her voice for many, many years to come.

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Please feel free to comment on your relationship with a parent/parents.

If applicable, how has cancer affected your relationship(s) with a parent or as a parent?


My Three Words: Courage, Kindness, Joy

Posted on: January 14th, 2014 by
2

I’ve committed to the words Courage, Kindness, and Joy as my mantra for 2014 and beyond. These words are a pilot test for 2014 and, if I allow them to be, will serve as a compass to guide me this year and through the rest of my life.

Courage

Last year hit me with hard realities: my dad’s dementia and a friend’s being diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer, my aunt’s declining health, and my mom being hospitalized (Thankfully, the latter turned out not to be serious at all.). I was so overwhelmed that I really couldn’t bring myself to write about all of this. The year 2013 had me tapping into my courage bank numerous times. While I thought my courage account was depleted, it turned out that I had reserves left over, reserves I will need for 2014.

This year, I will need steely courage, the kind drawn from a deep inner strength and empathy. My mom’s recent medical scare last week — and I’m hoping it’s just a scare — will test me, and whatever the outcome, good or bad, I will have to be strong for me, my mom, and my family. This does not mean I won’t be frightened. Often I will be. Frankly, I am worried what this year portends, but despite the fear, I am determined not to cower so much that I cannot be of service to those who need me.

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I need courage — like the chain link fence variety — to cope. My brother and I are lucky to have each other. We are close, have been operating as a tag team regarding my parents and aunt, and communicating openly. It’s easier to be courageous with someone else than alone.

Kindness

I try to be kind to others, and I’ve had the tendency to put others’ needs above my own. But I need to make sure I’m extremely kind to myself. The year ahead is going to be challenging, and I imagine I will be caregiving to some extent. But I have to remember to be kind to myself by taking care of myself first and foremost, so I can take care of others. This involves eating right, getting enough sleep, and exercise. Self-care is imperative.

Joy

I’ve made a commitment to myself that no matter what happens this year, I will seek joy in life’s precious moments. Like everyone, I am entitled to experience joy, and will seek it out in many ways, but mostly in terms of art, writing, and motherhood. I get such pleasure from being with Ari and watching her grow up before my very eyes. Whatever the aforementioned situations bring, I will do things that bring me peace and happiness.

I will not allow fear to hijack my joy.

There you have it: my three words for 2014. Now on to living them.

bamboo and sun

If you wanted to choose one or more words for 2014, which one(s) would you choose?

If you’ve already chosen words, what are they?


Family Matters

Posted on: January 9th, 2014 by
21

When first diagnosed with breast cancer, I felt a range of emotions including anger, terror, panic, sadness, grief — and the need to pray. But not in the way you might imagine. Rather than pray for my own life, my prayer went something like this: “Please don’t let anyone else in my family get cancer. Let it just be me.”

Not pleading for my own life might sound strange, but I figured the die were cast and I didn’t have complete control over the outcome. I was still in shock. And I reached acceptance pretty quickly, although I was plenty depressed because I was convinced I would die at a young age.

I didn’t want to die.

But I still felt more compelled to pray that my loved ones wouldn’t share my same cruel fate — whatever my outcome. Thus I sealed my pact with God. I would be the family’s sacrificial lamb, the horrible statistic, and my family would be safe. But today I fully realize this “pact” is an illusion. One cannot bargain life and death with God.

Yesterday, my mom told me a routine mammogram showed an abnormality in her left breast.

***
Understandably, she is rattled. I tried to calm her down — even though my mind was already racing down the catastrophic-thoughts highway.

After all, I know too much about breast cancer; yet I know absolutely nothing about this disease.

Instead, I told her rational somethings she could cling to: I said that whatever was found might be nothing at all, and the doctor is doing his job by closely monitoring her medical situation and ordering an ultrasound to further investigate the matter. I told her to try to live one day at a time and focus on the present, and there was no proof it was malignant. That going through medical tests was scary for everyone, and no one likes this kind of medical intrusion. I explained what an ultrasound was like. Finally, I praised her for being proactive and having the courage to go through these tests.

My mom looks to me for advice. To her, I represent the face of reason, although I know better. But now, during a time of potential crisis, I represent another face — the face of breast cancer.

It’s Complicated

During our conversation, she cried and said she wished I was with her in Florida during this difficult time, made even more difficult because my dad is being evaluated for his dementia. I felt bad. You see, in a little over a week, Ari and I are flying to New York to visit my family there; we hadn’t seen them in over a year and hadn’t even met my brother and sister-in-law’s one-year-old son. I was torn. I told my mom I would fly down to be with her and my dad in the near future. I wouldn’t abandon her. She seemed comforted.

When I got off the phone, my hands trembled for the rest of the day, and I felt like throwing up. Instead, I threw up a prayer: “Please don’t let my mom have cancer.”

There I go bargaining again.

And I thought back, feeling sorry for all the years I resented my mom after my diagnosis.

My parents are wonderful people, who love me and my brother deeply. However, they have not historically handled adversity well — especially my mom. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, she couldn’t bear to fly in for my surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. In fact, when my brother broke the news to them about me having cancer (I knew they’d fall apart and couldn’t handle being their psychologist when my world was falling apart), they couldn’t bear to call me that day. At the time, the grief of knowing they were unable support me the way I needed was more painful than knowing I had cancer.

My mom did apologize, and my parents did visit while I was recuperating from my first surgery, a surgery that my brother had flown in for. They also called every week. But for years I was closed-minded: I felt that they should have flown in for my treatments. Strangers taking care of me in the chemo room couldn’t understand how my own parents (and husband for that matter) couldn’t be there for me in my time of need and how I could be alone through all this trauma. I was jealous of cancer patients — even the ones worse off than me medically — whose loved ones were at their side in the chemo room.

And for years, I really didn’t accept my mom’s apology. I resented my parents, and I was angry. I felt they rejected me and I sarcastically called myself “The Untouchable,” because I felt so alone. But with great introspection and the passage of time, I realized that my parents loved me so much, they couldn’t cope with the pain of potentially losing me.

And an amazing thing happened: I forgave them.

And a kind miracle: my love and respect for them deepened. My mom talked more openly with me about what my illness meant to me. And in time, we all had a deep connection and a sound, healthy relationship with each other. And now, I can say with 100 percent certainty, that my parents mean the world to me and are my friends. Ari and I see them whenever we are able to.

All I can do at this point is hope for the best outcome possible. The word “benign” is becoming my favorite word. Whatever the outcome — good or not so good, however — I will support my parents and be there for them. They deserve all the kindness in the world.

I know too many people who have experienced the heartbreak of losing their moms to cancer and other illnesses. I don’t think I could handle this. I think it’s more difficult to be the one standing by an ill loved one than to be the one who is ill.

And now my mind is running at 100 miles of panic per hour.

And now I’m finished writing a post I never wanted to write.

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Please feel free to share a time you felt supported or not supported during a serious illness.

How have you supported someone with a serious illness?

Any advice on how I can support my mom would be welcomed.