September 12, 2009

Reaching Your Breaking Point?

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I got an email last night from a cancer patient.  She asked that I not use her name.  So I’ll call her Mia.  She wanted me to pose a question to you:

“The day I received my fourth diagnosis, I called my mother on the phone balling, crying. I could barely talk.  ‘How f***ing strong do I have to be?  Four times.  Four f***ing times,’ was all I could say.  I was in shock for days.  I live in a neighborhood with a lot of alcoholism.  After many years of not drinking (because I wanted my children to know they have a choice to not drink), I was at a friend’s house and grabbed a beer. Later that same night I drank more in a bar.  Driving home from the bar I got stopped by the cops. I got a DUI.

“Months after my surgeries and treatments the charges were reduced.  I’m in remission again.  Now I have to contend with all my mistakes. I honestly have no idea what happened to me.  It was something that my ‘healthy’ self would not have done.  How many others out there reach their breaking point and throw their hands in the air and just say ‘f*** it’ and have a moment of insanity or self-destructive behavior?”

Mia’s not alone.  In Everything Changes, I write about Wafa’a, a young adult lymphoma patient who cut herself as a teenager and began again after recurrence.  Wafa’a said, “When I get a cancer diagnosis, I feel sadness, frustration, anger, loneliness, and really violent, like I want to break something and freak out.  Some people get anger out externally but I want to take it out on myself.”

I too understand the need to explode from cancer’s intensity.  A few times I’ve craved dragging hard on a cigarette  but just could not go there.  The day after I received test results showing a rare variation in my cell type, I chucked a dozen eggs against my shower walls while screaming and crying.  It was satisfyingly messy and violent, but safe.  (I now think shower drains should come with disposals for shells.)

Like Mia, have you ever had a breaking point of insanity or self-destructive behavior?   Have you found any safe and healthy ways to let your violent anger out?

Read Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s to learn more about how Tracy, Wafa’a, and Geoff navigated through self-destructive thinking.

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July 01, 2009

How I’m Coping With My Incurable Cancer

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Today’s post is longer than usual. I get great emails from people who have read my book Everything Changes. I thought I’d share this one with you and my response:

Dear Kairol,
You’re the only other person I’ve found with a tricky case of thyroid cancer with no cure. How did you deal with it? Having my cancer labeled as “recurrence” worked because then we could do something about it. But now it is seen more as incurable.  The constant monitoring and the knowledge that it’s lingering sucks. Lately I’m always thinking about it. Did you just accept it at some point? How long did it take? Blogging helps a bit to get the thoughts out of my head, but it’s sort of driving me nuts. Any suggestions, advice? – Robin

Dear Robin,
You’re in territory familiar to anyone living with chronic disease. It is very unusual for papillary thyroid cancer to be incurable, but here you and I are. I’m living with two tumors in my neck and am not receiving treatment (I’m refractory) and won’t have surgery unless they grow significantly. I’m doing this under close supervision of a top-notch doc at Memorial Sloan Kettering. This approach is a recent shift for me. Your question made me reflect on how I’m coping with incurability.  Hold tight, some of this seems nauseatingly Oprah-esque but just stick with me:

Acceptance and relief. My experience is opposite yours. Knowing that my cancer is incurable has dissipated my fear and anxiety somewhat, which is hilarious considering what a high-strung freak I can be. When we still thought there was a cure, I was hyper-stressed wondering “Will treatment work this time?” “Will my scans show me as cancer free?” It seems twisted, but in this world of being incurable, I find relief in not having to grapple with these unknowns and in not having to recover from the continual and exhausting disappointment of bad news. Of course I’d rather have good news, but I’ve rarely received good news in nine years of cancer and I’m sighing with relief at calling a spade a spade.

I now mark success not by the absence of cancer but by whether the tumors have grown or stayed the same (I want to include shrinking as an option but I feel too jinxed to do that.) This is a big change that I’m still adjusting to.  And yes, waiting for blood test and scan results still SUCKS but is getting ever so slightly easier with time.  Either that or my distractions are just getting better.

Expert Care. My new doc primarily sees patients with challenging cases. He has no pity, confusion, or odd curiosity about my case. He has seen tons of patients in my shoes and can tell me what to expect. This is tremendously reassuring.

Deep Distraction. I’m good at feeling my feelings, and at finding supreme distractions: a person can only take so much wondering if cancer has spread to other organs. My book Everything Changes hit the shelves while the reality of my chronic condition was unfolding. Keynote speaking, blogging, answering fan mail, and having book parties around the country are incredible distractions. (Anyone who wants to host a book party for me – just say the word!)  There is a fine balance between running from reality and plunging into a well deserved, therapeutic lifestyle of perfectly legal distractions.  Find that balance.

Simple Comparisons. 98% of the time comparing oneself to other cancer patients is a supremely bad idea and only leads to jealousy, guilt, or worse – forced gratitude. I have found a small exception. I live daily with the intimate stories of 25 people who are in my book.  Their cancers are faster growing than mine (most papillary is very slow growing) and my survival rate is still very good.  I may or may not have to deal with some more complicated medical hell in the future.  And that scares the crap out of me.  But I know I still have a good chance of living, and compared to these other patients I have come to adore, I’m down right grateful.   I do not make these comparisons to force myself to feel better – again, horrible idea – but the comparisons are just happening naturally for me and result in some deep appreciation for my struggle and theirs’.

Being Myself. Who I am changes because I’m growing up, adjusting to cancer, and seeing the world differently as life moves on. How I feel now about my cancer today will not last forever. What’s easy for me to digest now may become harder, and then will become easier again. That’s why I love the mantra Everything Changes. It is just true.  When I’m in an hideous headspace about my cancer, I don’t beat myself up about feeling like crap. I let it be and know that it will change. Relieving this pressure helps. Seeing a therapist can be helpful too, as can my current system of therapy: baking strawberry cobblers, talking out my fears with Shannon, renting espionage movies, and remembering that Everything Changes.

Does anyone else have advice for how to live with recurrences, incurable disease, or what to do with cancer fear in general? Have you made the shift from acute to chronic and how did you deal with it? If you have other questions for me, send them my way. I’d love to answer them.

Read Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s to learn  how Wafa’a, Geoff, Greg, and Holly Anna have dealt with illness over the long haul.

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February 24, 2009

This Time’s A Charm

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You might remember Donald Wilhelm from the blog post ‘Should You Write A Cancer Book?’ He’s back today musing on the nasty little subject that none of us want to think about but some of us have to: recurrence. Donald’s new book This Time’s a Charm: Lessons of a Four-Time Cancer Survivor tells his real-life story from a patient’s perspective about surviving cancer four times.

Q: What is the stupidest comment someone said to you when you told them you had a recurrence?

A: Most people are sympathetic, but I have heard several times, “Well, at least you know what to expect.” Not helpful and unlikely to make it onto a Hallmark greeting card.

Q: When you meet recently diagnosed lymphoma patients do you reveal how many times you’ve had recurrences? If so, do you worry about scaring them?

A: I often go back and forth on this topic, especially if they’re Hodgkin’s patients. Overall, I usually tell them because it seems to put most people at ease. Most folks want to know that someone has had it worse than they have it.

Q: Did you ever have friends who disappeared when you were first diagnosed but were there for you during subsequent recurrences?

A: Yes, that does happen often. Some folks are just not comfortable with their own mortality, so being around someone who’s facing a challenge makes them uber uncomfortable. I don’t judge them though, because their reaction is simply a symptom of our society’s overall issues with death.

Q: How has your relationship to science changed with each diagnosis?

A: It has ebbed and flowed. At times I watch the latest studies into things like stem cell research and monoclonal antibodies. And with other recurrences, I just trust in my own body and my oncologist to kick its butt today with drugs we have now. All in all, it may likely end up being a combination that finally does the trick for me.

Donald’s book takes a detailed look at dealing with lymphoma recurrence. To buy a copy visit his website or Amazon.

Have you ever had a recurrence? If so, how would you respond to the questions I just asked Donald? Are your responses similar or different from his? What is the stupidest thing someone has said to you?

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