It was a bright sunny day when I got my cancer call (yes, over the phone!). To this day, it reminds me of the opening scene in Bonanza when the branding iron burns the map of the Ponderosa. OK, I’m dating myself, but that’s what it feels like my diagnosis did to me.
Setting the Tone for Family to React
Coping with any cancer diagnosis is hard! I suppose it varies: your personality, where you are in life, and how you deal with a crisis. I was 41 and my only child was a senior in high school. I’ve always been the type of person to worry about everyone else first and me last. My main concern at the time was how my family would handle it. My parents had already buried a child, and I absolutely hated that they had to go through the fear of losing me too.
I learned early on that everyone took their cue from me. If I panicked, they panicked! If I had a “can-do” attitude, I found it was much easier on everyone else around me. It wasn’t an act. I really did have that attitude… most of the time. I’m not that strong though; I certainly had my moments. Was it fair to me to have to be the brave one, maybe not, but I don’t really care! It worked for me and that’s what counts! Worrying about others helped me cope.
Finding a Good Book
The day after I was diagnosed a friend brought me every book she could find about breast cancer. Most scared the daylights out of me, and I wasn’t ready to hear about statistics just yet. There was one book, however, that I clung to. The first thing it said was to take three days to scream, cry, and generally wallow in your misery. You were dealt a blow and your body let you down. Grieve! On the fourth day, pick yourself up and get on with your life. I did them proud… I wallowed with the best of them! It also talked about “exceptional patients” and how some, when given a poor prognosis, said “no way” and went on to live long healthy lives. Nobody knows why this happens, but I was intrigued and wanted to fall into this category. I tried to keep negative feelings at bay, which was sometimes easier said than done! The book also suggested visualization. You know, imagining something inside you gobbling up your cancer. This one I had a little trouble with. I eventually went with scrubbing bubbles washing away my cancer cells. What can I say… I like things clean! It was a way I coped!
Relying on Faith and Humor
I also relied heavily on my faith. When those dark thoughts came, usually at night, I prayed like I had never prayed before. Not only for courage and strength for myself, but for my family as well.
In those early days, I tried not to think too far into the future. I made a sign that said “you are alive now, right this very minute… and you will enjoy life!” It was my motto and I lived by it every day. Nobody knows what the future holds, cancer or not! I hung that sign on my bedroom wall and it was the first thing I saw every morning. It got me through some pretty rough times. Every minute, every hour, every day!
My sense of humor was also an important coping mechanism. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing funny about cancer. But I did try to laugh as often as I could. It made me feel better and it helped me deal with my situation. When my Mom shaved my head, my first thought was of how much I now looked like Mr. Clean! I made it my goal to find something humorous about every day. Some days were harder than others, but I tried!
Learning from Others on the Cancer Journey
I joined a support system that literally changed my life. No subject was off limits and those women helped me in so very many ways. We laughed together, we cried together, and we shared our fears and successes (still do!). Although I have wonderful friends who stood by me throughout my cancer journey, no one understands better than those who have walked in your shoes. Without a doubt this support system was a driving force in helping me cope!
And most importantly I surrounded myself with positivity! I stayed off the internet (again, those statistics… ugh!). If someone started going into detail about how their Great Aunt Edna died of the same cancer I had, I cut them off. Sorry… didn’t want to hear it. I thrived on success stories. The first time I met someone who was several years out from her own cancer diagnosis, she literally became my hero. If she could do it, I could too! Maybe I was being naive, but it was a way I could cope.
Setting Goals to Stay Positive
I also set goals for myself. Little goals in the beginning, then gradually larger ones. My husband offered to take me on a trip anywhere in the world when I finished chemotherapy and was able to travel. He thought I’d aim high. I chose Disney World! I’d been there many times; it was my happy place. I dreamed of walking down Main Street towards Cinderella’s Castle. My hair would be starting to come back and I’d have energy again. ENERGY! It would be wonderful. It gave me something to look forward to!
Coping with cancer did not end when I finished treatment. It’s been over 20 years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Occasionally I’ll hear a story like Olivia Newton-John’s relapse after 25 years and those fears will come back in full force. Happily, it doesn’t happen very often. I’ve tried not to let my guard down. I still live every day to the fullest, laugh when I can, and always try to stay positive.