If it hasn’t happened yet, sometime soon, you or someone you love will face cancer. Here are some steps to help you through the ordeal.
According to the National Cancer Institute, 40% of those born today will develop cancer at some time in their lives. If I am in that 40%, how will I deal with the diagnosis? How can I help the 40% of my friends and family who face cancer? As a cardiologist, I see a lot of patient with a serious cardiac diagnosis. The process of dealing with any serious illness is similar. Let me share the story of one fictitious individual to illustrate how to deal with a serious diagnosis. I will share the story in three parts.
Judy typifies the saying that “50 is the new 40.” Since her last child went away to college, she has thrown herself into new activities. While continuing to work at an architectural firm, she participates in an aerobics class three times a week. On weekends, she and her husband travel all over the country to see their son play college basketball.
One Friday afternoon, a week after a routine mammogram, Judy received a telephone call from her doctor, asking her to come in for an appointment that afternoon. She sat for far too long in the waiting room, and then sat in the brightly lit, sterile-smelling exam room for what seemed an eternity. Finally, her doctor came in and sat down.
“There is a spot on your mammogram that is probably a cancer. We won’t know for sure until you have a biopsy. I have scheduled an appointment for you with Dr. Karen Hancock on Monday.”
The Longest Weeks of Her Life
Sometimes, waiting is worse than getting bad news. At least when we have bad news, we can begin to strategize and make plans. With uncertainty, we imagine every possible outcome from “no cancer” to “you have less than six months to live.” Our hearts run around in circles touching every possibility. It is no wonder we stay dizzy and shaken.
After she left the doctor’s office, Judy met her husband, Mark, for dinner at their favorite restaurant. Ordinarily, the smell of fresh bread and the sound of quiet conversation would make her feel warm and comfortable. Tonight, the surroundings just seemed cold and ironic, reinforcing her feelings of anger and isolation.
“Judy, what’s the worst thing that could happen?”
“I could have cancer, go through chemotherapy, and still die.”
Mark reached across the table and took both of her hands in his own.
“Judy, just remember that whatever happens, I will be there to go through it with you.”
Judy’s terror about cancer had locked her inside her spinning emotions. Mark had just reached in and rescued her. Leaning on him, she was able to get a grasp on her situation. Now, she could look ahead to the future with a little more hope. With a gentle touch and the assurance that he would be there no matter what, he became her anchor.
Not everyone has a husband like Mark. But when faced with a crisis like a cancer diagnosis, our first step should be to find a friend to help share our burden. It may be a coworker, a family member, a clergyperson, or even a professional counselor. We should not be afraid to tell them sometimes that we do not want advice; we just need to talk things out and know they will listen and stay with us.
When a friend has a difficult diagnosis, it is tempting to avoid them, because we don’t know what to say, or because their problem reminds us of our own mortality. We need to come alongside them instead, and be that friend. Ask them what they are feeling, and how to best encourage them. Ask about their family, also. Judy’s children need encouragement from their friends as they worry about their mother, and Mark may need to spend more time at the gym to work out his emotions there.
When Judy saw Dr. Hancock on Monday, she wanted to have surgery as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the earliest Dr. Hancock could operate was Thursday. Then, after surgery, Judy had to wait another two weeks for the results of the biopsy. For Judy, the period of uncertainty lasted for 3 weeks.
I’ll share part 2 of Judy’s story in the next couple of days! Between now and then, think of a way to stick by a friend who is going through a tough time. There are more principles about dealing with illness in my book, Navigating the Medical Maze. You can also learn more on my website, www.drstevenbrown.org.
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