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Lessons from a Cancer Survivor

Posted on: August 15th, 2012 by Todd Bramson

When we are in the middle of something, we don’t always recognize why it is significant until years later. My colleague, Amy Born, had cancer and it’s only been recently, when she was asked to write about it, that she was able to find some sort of meaning in it. This essay she wrote makes a perfect Memoiry Journal entry:

In early August 2003, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. While I was shocked to find out I had cancer, I was relieved to have a diagnosis. For more than a year, doctors and other health practitioners told me my symptoms were nothing or said I would just have to live with them.

Lesson #1 – Be your own advocate, and don’t stop until you get the right answer.

Suddenly, my life was in the hands of strangers. I had many questions and concerns. Over the next few weeks, I underwent a battery of tests, procedures, and consultations to confirm what I had, what stage it was, how the rest of me was functioning, and how I would handle treatment. My doctors were very thorough, patient, and kind.

Lesson #2 – Love your doctors. You need to be completely comfortable asking and telling them anything, including sharing your opinions about your treatment. I have referred others to my various cancer doctors, but I always stress that just because they were a good fit for me, doesn’t mean they would be a good fit for someone else. It is a very personal decision. Choose wisely!

Once word got out that I had cancer, several friends stepped in to help. One took over coordinating meals and rides to treatment. Another took over just about everything else. Many, many others pitched in as well. At first, it was difficult to let people help me. (I didn’t want to be or feel needy.) I quickly relented. Having cancer is a full-time job and clearly I was going to need some outside assistance.

Lesson #3 – It’s okay to ask for and accept help. In these situations, the people around you want to feel useful. Since they can’t cure you, the least they can do is make a lasagna, drive you, keep your 3-year-old for an afternoon, or maybe clean your bathroom. They feel better. You have less to worry about. Good all the way around.

My diagnosis came with the information that – with aggressive treatment including chemotherapy and radiation – my disease was curable. This was awesome news. I was not going to die. But even without the worry of death, cancer treatment is not easy. In addition to fatigue and hair loss, I couldn’t taste my food. I had a variety of gastrointestinal discomforts, drenching night sweats, and mouth sores. I received regular injections that made my bones ache. But, because I didn’t have a pink ribbon cancer or a death sentence, I felt a little like a fraud.

Lesson #4 – Every cancer patient deserves a ribbon.

The following summer while planning a party for our newly adopted daughter, I found that I was incapable of making even the simplest arrangements. I was scattered and depressed. I realized that I had scheduled the party on the one year anniversary of my diagnosis. I still had trouble acknowledging the fact that I’d had cancer, and in my efforts to power through I had never let myself experience the grief and fear associated with being seriously ill. I cancelled the party.

Lesson #5 – It’s important to give yourself the time and space to sort out your feelings. And it’s okay to feel sad. Or angry. Or scared. Or (fill in the blank).

On that first anniversary, I learned about an American Cancer Society fundraising event called Relay for Life. Participants raise money and, as part of a team, walk laps around a track throughout the night. I wasn’t ready to get involved at that point (for reasons already stated) but, when it came up the following year, I joined a team. I didn’t know if I was going to feel uneasy every August, but this time I thought I could turn my anxiety toward helping someone else. As a recent cancer patient, I raised money almost effortlessly. I walked the track several times throughout the evening and again in the early morning. I walked as a survivor, with my kids and husband, and with friends. The experience was incredibly uplifting.

Lesson #6 – Find a way to transform your fears and anxiety into something positive by doing something good for someone else.

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