Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Advice for Living with Cancer

I saw an article last week called "Got Cancer? Now What?" written by Lisa Marie Wilson, a cancer survivor, who was also a caretaker for a mother and grandmother who had cancer. It's pretty good advice, especially for someone newly diagnosed.

It's been six and a half years as a cancer patient for me, and reading this brought back some memories.

I like Wilson's advice to be organized early on -- get and save copies of paperwork from each doctor, understand what you'll need to bring to appointments, and make friends with someone from the insurance company. It's been a long time since those hazy first days of diagnosis for me, but I'd also add, bring a friend along who can assist you with all of those things. Another pair of eyes and ears is a big help when your own head is filled with visions of dancing cancer cells. Clarity comes later, when the fog lifts.

She also has some good advice on attitude -- "take the diagnosis as a warning, not a fact." I like the way she put this. Obviously, you need to be realistic, and accept that you have cancer, but you don't need to believe the statistics you read online and take those as a reflection of what your own cancer journey will be. In fact, I'd add something to this list about staying offline for a while, or maybe having that clear-eyed friend read along with you when you go online to make sure you aren't reading the worst.

A couple of other bits of advice on staying positive are helpful, but with some cautions. I absolutely believe in the power of humor, and if you've read some of the very early stuff on this blog from my first year, you know that I'm a great collector of cancer humor. [Which reminds me -- I may need to write a cancer humor post sometime soon. It's been, literally, years since I've done one....] For me, laughing at cancer was a way of facing cancer head-on. And I think it's great advice for people who are equipped for it. For me, I've always been an easy laugh, especially at my own jokes. My wife says I'll always have an audience because I think of myself as so darn funny. But for some people, who may be a little more serious, laughter is going to be forced. And that might just take more energy than you have to spare.

I'm also wary of the "stay positive" advice. Again, I'm a fairly positive person. And I tell my kids, when things are going bad, that the only problem that gets solved by staying in bed is a lack of sleep. Facing the day is the best way to solve a problem. But being positive all the time can be exhausting. There are a few versions out there of responses to the "tyranny of the positive attitude" (I like this one -- less academic). Basically, we're always told that we have to stay positive in the face of something like cancer. And we probably should -- most of the time. But dang it, sometimes we need to just have a crappy day. A day of staying in bed and eating ice cream for lunch and watching Dirty Dancing. And promising ourselves that we'll try to be more positive tomorrow. I think that's a healthy thing to do. We're cancer patients, for crying out loud. We're entitled to a day of cookie dough and Patrick Swayze.

So, overall, I think the article has some very good advice. But, like all advice, I think we need to adapt it in ways that make sense to us. We all deal with cancer differently -- those of us who have it, those of us who care for those who have it, and those of us who aren't sure what to do for someone who has it. The most important things, in my experience, are to communicate with people who can help you, whether they are doctors or caregivers, and to learn as much as you can about your disease, but not so much that you drive yourself crazy.

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