Cancer robs us of our most valuable illusion, the future. There’s so much we put up with, salving our wounds with the thought that things will get better in the future. That jerk of a neighbor will move. You’ll get a promotion, or a better job elsewhere, if you just keep plugging away. Your kid will grow out of that nasty phase. Once you retire, you won’t have to put up with all these clowns that cut you off on your drive to work. Ah, retirement, that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. So many plans. So many hopes. All those things you’ll do, places you’ll go, in the future.
Guess what? For many of us, there is no future. Those plans, desires, that sweet honey that got us through the day, can dry up and blow away. Many only have the cancer treatment treadmill to look forward to.
For me, getting through treatment meant blocking any thoughts of the future, because the future might’ve been declining health and increased suffering. Not something you want to think about. I tried to think about what’s needed to get me through the day, the week, the next round of chemo, the next blood test, the next scan. What can I do to make it a better day? What can I do to make myself feel better? I put the blinders on. This is where I am. This is how I’m going to make the best of it.
The future is the last thing I wanted to think about. The future I feared was in store for me made me break out in a cold sweat and my stomach churn.
I suppose some might get through treatment focusing on that happily ever after, after I get through treatment, after I’m cured, these are all the fun things I’ll do. I’m too much of a pessimist to take that route. That wasn’t my coping mechanism.
You have to take the path that works for you. Want to be the happy warrior, go for it! Want to play the Eeyore, do it! If someone doesn’t like your approach, cancer gives you the excuse to tell them and go somewhere and do something physically impossible with their opinion.
Of course, wallowing in depression is only good in limited doses. You can mourn the loss of your health, the loss of the future you always dreamed of, but you’ve got to move on. Clinical depression is not all it’s cracked up to be. If you feel you’re in a rut you can’t escape, get help.
One loss I deeply felt, was the loss of another illusion, control (I suppose it’s the flip side of the future). I remember sitting in my hospital bed, feeling lousy, not where I wanted to be, not at work supporting my family, not with friends having a good time, not doing anything I wanted to do. I felt totally adrift, at the mercy of my rebellious cells. Would I be cured? Would I die? I had no idea. I was just along for the ride.
How do you gain power when you’re feeling powerless? Be nice. Help someone else. Thank the nurse. Talk to your fellow patient. Try to make him laugh. Thank your doctor. However you can, make someone else feel better, feel appreciated. Even if all you can do is talk, you have the power to make someone else feel better. It may not be all the power you wished you had, but it’s a power that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Hope for the Best
I guess this contradicts not thinking about the future, but I’ve never claimed to be logical.
You know all the bad things that can happen if the cancer gets out of control. You’ve heard about all the nasty side effects of treatment. But given the roulette wheel nature of cancer treatment, no one really knows on which number the ball will land.
So don’t stress about it. Focus on today. Don’t think about all the bad things that might happen. Until you’re told otherwise, the bad stuff won’t happen. In 2002, I had really heavy duty chemo and an autologous stem cell transplant. I read about all the possible side effects and the infections. I wasted so much energy anticipating all this nastiness to start. They didn’t happen. For a month I felt like I had the hangover from Hell, and I was bald as an egg, but that was pretty much it. No infections, hospitalizations, long term side effects. I relapsed ten months later, but that’s another story.
Hope is a frame of mind. For me, it was the ability to force as many of the bad thoughts out of my head as I possibly could. What was left got me through the day.”
How do you cope?