In my last post, our fictitious friend, Judy, had been through the awful experience of an abnormal mammogram, then a biopsy, and then two weeks of waiting for the biopsy results. She learned how important it was to have friends to help her through this ordeal, and we learned how important it is to be a friend to those facing a difficult diagnosis. Today, let’s see what happened when Judy got the news.
When Judy saw the surgeon for the biopsy results, she learned that she did have cancer, and she did need chemotherapy. She had a good long talk with the cancer specialist. She learned that the medications we have today for treating side effects from chemotherapy are much better than they were even a few years ago, and that the chemotherapy would probably not be as unpleasant as she had feared. She was pleased to learn that she had a reasonable chance for cure, although there would always be some risk of recurrence (more uncertainty).
The second step in coping with cancer is to learn the facts. Start with your doctor, as Judy did. Make a list of questions, such as “What are the chances I can be cured?” “How long am I likely to live?” “How likely is it that the treatment you have suggested will help me, and how will it help?” “What side effects can I expect?” “What symptoms indicate a need to go to the hospital, or to call you before my next scheduled appointment?” Ask your doctor to suggest other reliable sources of information.
If you use the internet, do not believe everything you read. If I had cancer, I would want desperately to believe all those sites that claim that they have learned the secret to “miracle cures without surgery or chemotherapy.” When you read their ads, remind yourself that if something sounds too good to be true, it is probably not true.
Gathering facts helps some people more than it helps others. It is possible to get so much information that you become overwhelmed. Know yourself, and do only the research you need to feel that you understand your illness. If it is your friend or family member with cancer, offer to go with them to the doctor’s office and take notes. It is amazing how much we forget when the doctor goes out of the room.
The feelings Judy experienced in the next several weeks changed from one day to the next. Sometimes, she did not want to believe that she really had cancer. Other times, she was angry. She directed her anger at God, at her doctors, or even at Mark. Some days, she felt she could cope if only she knew tomorrow would be better, or if only she wouldn’t lose her hair from the chemo. After a couple of weeks, she went into a period of depression, where she saw no hope and expected the worst. Eventually, she began to accept the diagnosis, and in turn, slowly got back on her feet emotionally.
Judy was experiencing a series of emotions described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her classic book, On Death and Dying. She describes five stages of dealing with an illness, specifically: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Not everyone experiences all of the stages, experiences them in order, or just has a given stage once.
The third step in coping with cancer is to understand our feelings. When we understand the normal range of emotions associated with a devastating diagnosis, we can step back from our emotions and understand that emotions are not reality. Discussing normal emotions with a friend who has cancer opens the door to let them tell us what they feel. If we understand their feelings, we are giving them support.
In my next post, which you can expect in the next few days, we will learn the fourth step Judy took in this process. We’ll see how that step helps all of us in whatever problems we face. In the meantime, you can learn more about dealing with illness from my book, Navigating the Medical Maze, or on my website, www.drstevenbrown.org.
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