How to live after a cancer diagnosis

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

here are a number of three-word sentences in the English language that, although short phrases, they have a large potential for greatly impacting one’s life. Phrases that immediately come to mind are, “I love you,” “Let’s get married,” “I got hired (or fired)!”, and “You’ve Got Mail.” However, one that has maybe even a bigger impact on people’s lives — and maybe even a longer lasting affect than some people’s marriages or jobs — is this one: “You’ve got cancer.” I personally have heard (and/or said) all of the above phrases, and just a little over two years ago I got to hear the last one after I awoke from emergency surgery to remove a blockage in my small intestine.

nterestingly enough, I didn’t hit me like a cow’s kick to the chest — which is exactly the way it felt when we got the news six years ago that mom had stage 4 pancreatic cancer — but it felt more like resignation: “Yeah, it figures. Didn’t I predict I’d be the next in line for this?” Actually I did say it in 2014 when my mom, dad and a favorite uncle all were diagnosed (and the men are still with us). I told the man I was dating at the time, “I feel like, ‘who’s next? Me, because I’m the oldest in the family?” He told me not to think like that but as it turned out, I was right (either that or I “spoke it into existence,” as another friend told me his grandma always said). Though people do generally like it when they are “right” there are sometimes when they strongly dislike it — such as when I predicted my own diagnosis — when they are correct.

I joined the many millions of people who have ever had or currently have cancer. So many of us. There are probably very few people in the world who hasn’t been touched by cancer in some way, since it is so common in people of all ages, colors, shapes and sizes with little known (only suspected) about causes of these cancers. Many years ago I kind of half-jokingly said, “It seems like almost anything we eat or drink or are exposed to is potentially cancer causing.” I might not have been too far off the mark. I strongly suspect diet has a lot to do with it. This may be backed up by studying the types of cancer in people in different parts of the world. I’m pretty sure the U.S. has certain cancers at a higher rates than other countries because of what the average American meal looks like.

hat I have is called a neuroendocrine tumor (or NET) and is relatively rare. I could find no statistics on it, though my oncologist and a variety of other medical professionals I’ve met in my journey since then have told me it’s a rare form of cancer. It was interesting upon one of my early appointments with my oncologist when she said, “There’s good news and bad news. It’s bad news you have cancer, and it’s good news that you have this one.” I never asked what she meant by that, though maybe I will when I see her again for my next quarterly checkup. My own translation of that was, with this one I am lucky because I’m not having chemotherapy in the sense that many people have or are having, nor do I have to get radiation. I just get a shot every four weeks that is supposed to slow (or stop) the spread.

you would expect of someone in my shoes, I spent a week or two wallowing in misery back in 2018 following my week-long stay at a regional hospital and my not-very-surprising (but still hurtful) cancer diagnosis. I cried a lot (though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t “Why me?/ Why??” that I said while shaking my fists toward the sky) and worried because I hope to see grandchildren some day, I’d like to see my great nieces and great nephew grow up, and there are a number of things I still want to do on my “bucket list” if only lack of money were no hindrance to my doing so.

ecause of curiosity about NET I read a lot of stuff about prognosis, life expectancy at the certain stages, and stuff like that. It basically paralyzed my brain, because “you might live this long if ….” and “if the staging is … then you might last as long as ….” just got to be too many words for me and made me cry for reasons I’m sure you all who have been touched by cancer can relate with. I had my tears though eventually decided I’d rather NOT sit around and dwell on when “the end” might come. Because the truth is, we’re all going to the great dirt nap some day. None of us, as the saying goes, gets out of here alive. So we might as well live and enjoy each day we are given until there are no more … says the girl who lives on the sunny side of the street.

lot of people give me their sympathy when they hear I’m a cancer patient. I tell them, “Thanks, but for me it isn’t really as hard on me as some (many?) people have it.” I had an uncle who took radiation about 14 years ago and last time I saw him he said how much it sucked (ok, maybe that wasn’t his exact word, but probably close to it) and “I’ll die rather than take radiation again.” A few days later he was gone. I’ve known numerous people, like my mom, who suffered through chemotherapy, losing their hair, being nauseous all the time and enduring other unpleasant side effects of cancer treatment. I don’t have to do that at this point and am quite thankful. I’m not sure whether it will ever come up for discussion; one never knows.

uring my monthly visits to the Medical Oncology department over the past almost two years I’ve met and talked with lots of people going through treatments for different cancer. Some were on their last legs, some were just starting out. Often when I leave my monthly appointments I have tears in my eyes. I figure it’s because I can sense the sadness, the feelings of loss and despair in the people around me. And too it might be a little bit because I’m doing these appointments alone; a lot of people have a partner/spouse or a family member with them at their visits (or I should say, this used to be the case pre-pandemic) and I don’t. I am comforted in the knowledge that some friends and relatives are there in spirit, sending good vibes, thoughts and prayers, or what-have-you, hoping for my recovery. Having cancer really does show you who your peeps are.

remember a year or so ago reading a post on Facebook about a 90-year-old woman who was diagnosed with some form of cancer. Instead of taking treatment, which would surely have decreased thequality of her remaining life substantially as it has many millions of people, she decided to go on a long-distance road trip. Assuming that I were in her shoes and had the money to play with, I’d like to think I would do the exact same thing. Have some adventures doing what I love (traveling) and live a little before shuffling off this mortal coil.

“How’s it hit you, when you get that kind of news. Man, what’d you do? I went sky diving, I went rocky mountain climbing. I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu…And I loved deeper. And I spoke sweeter. And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.” He said “some day I hope you get the chance/ to live like you were dying.” — Tim McGraw, “Live Like You Were Dying”

ollowing are some suggestions I have (most of which aren’t as death-defyingly daring as those actions above, or the antics of Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson in “Bucket List” but still are good guidelines) for living a good life and hopefully easing your mind after getting the earth-shattering, life-altering news of having cancer.

  1. Ask questions. Lots of them. Pick the doctor’s brains. Do research on the web. Try to ease your mind as much as possible, because worry causes stress, too much of which is not good for one’s overall health. Becoming informed as possible helps illuminate some shadows in the brain you might have about what is coming next. I read whatever I could find on NET and still have questions. I realize I should be writing them down so I can ask my oncologist, but this sometimes fails to happen.
  2. If your lifestyle hasn’t been exactly healthy, step it up a bit. Since my mother was a lifelong health nut — “eat right and exercise” — I inherited some of her habits per a “healthy lifestyle.” Some days admittedly I slip up and have popcorn for supper, but hey, as mom always said, if you fall off the (diet) wagon one day, just get right back up on it.
  3. Along the lines of living healthy is trying to minimize stress. Meditating is one way to manage it, exercising is another. Deep breathing and relaxation breaks help, as does being in a happy place, doing enjoyable activities, getting massages, being loved ones … even if they’re four-footed furry loved ones, like I’m surrounded by at my home.
  4. Join a support group. They are everywhere, online on social media (and obviously nowadays said support groups are probably meeting over Zoom if they are meeting at all). I know we have a couple of support groups in the small county seat where I live but there again, probably not currently meeting. Last week I found a number of websites, including www.mayoclinic.org, with a wealth of information. Another I found offered online support groups for people specifically with NET. There was also a link where I could participate in clinical trials, something my mother talked about doing, and I don’t recall if she did or not.
  5. Even if you’re uncertain about your prognosis, it would be good to think about getting your affairs in order. Do this so your survivors don’t have to after the fact. While she was taking treatment, my mom worked on doing this so her survivors would not have to worry about those details. Not that I have much to leave my one and only heir, but maybe it’ll just make life easier for my son if I write a will. Also, in the last several months I’ve made sure all my accounts have “pay on death” on them so they will be paid out to my son without having to go to probate. I also plan to “lighten the load” in my house so the chore of cleaning it out won’t be such a huge one for him when my time comes.

ife is always full of surprises and one just never knows what might be around the corner. We might fall in love, land a fabulous job, have a “surprise!” baby, decide to get married, write a best seller … and/or we might get cancer. Some days it feels like everyone, their uncle and their dog has had or will get the disease. In some cases it’s treatable, in others it isn’t. Life is a crap shoot and predictions on life expectancy after cancer diagnosis are frequently incorrect, so it seems pointless to worry about it (remember, stress and fear aren’t good for you). I’ll end with sayings I adore: “It’s not the years in your life but the life in your years.” Or this one: “It’s not the number of breaths you take it’s the moments that take your breath away.” While none of us, cancer patient or not, knows how long we’re going to last, we can all focus on doing the best life while we are able. Good vibes, thoughts and prayers to my fellow cancer patients and your loved ones. Cheers!

Experienced professional writer/freelancer and former newspaper reporter-turned-online writer/blogger. Thinker. “Old soul”, young hippie, empath.

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