December 7th, 1999. For all of us, this date was important because it was the 58th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For me, this is also the day I took my Biochemistry final during my first quarter of medical school. It was one of the hardest exams of my life and I managed to get a 97% on it. These are not details I would normally remember, except for the fact that I left that exam and saw that I had a message on my cell phone. Knowing who it was from, I waited until I got home to listen to it. My surgeon’s voice was on the other end of that line through the ethers telling me gently and directly that I had cancer. All I remember thinking at that point was, “Huh. Now what?”
That was 16 years ago. I’ve tended to talk about it as “just a blip” in the road that is my life. I tell people that it doesn’t define me. I don’t intentionally wear pink. I don’t dwell on it. Last week something happened that made me question if my lack of focus on my cancer, is actually discounting my entire experience. I came home Thursday night and cried, and it took me by surprise. I was lucky enough to be invited by a dear friend to attend the last annual dinner for the Auburn Community Cancer Endowment Fund. At one point in the evening, the emcee asked all cancer survivors to stand. My immediate response was to wonder if I should stand or not. I quickly chose to stand, but not because I think of myself as a “survivor”. It was actually because people who know me were in the audience.
What keeps me from standing up? It’s not that I’m embarrassed to be acknowledged for something I’ve done. It’s that I don’t feel like I’ve done anything. I don’t feel like I “survived” anything. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything heroic or worth acknowledgement. I didn’t do the traditional chemo or radiation. I made my own path with different chemo-therapeutic drugs, along with Naturopathic therapies. It wasn’t easy or fun, but part of me feels I don’t deserve to stand with the people who have endured those other things. I’m still struggling with this, and am not sure where these thoughts will take me. However, there is one thing that I KNOW I did, and I use this to help others, so perhaps I can focus on that for now.
I did one simple thing. I made my own choices. That’s it. Okay, maybe it’s not that simple, but it is definitely my best advice to all patients I see who’ve been diagnosed with cancer. I was lucky enough to find one doctor that helped me see that, despite completely opposing views from the top 4 oncologists in Seattle.
If you or someone you know is diagnosed with cancer, here are my words of wisdom:
- Do NOT rush into anything, no matter who scares you into thinking you have to. You have time to make the decision that is right for you. Take it!
- Gather enough information to make an informed decision.
We have so much research on cancer and survival rates now. Having these numbers can really help you make a decision.
For example: if surgery reduces your risk of recurrence to 10%, and adding chemotherapy to that decreases your risk of recurrence to 8%, you now have enough information to decide if it is worth it for you, as opposed to making your decision simply from the fear of a recurrence.
3. Love your team! There are enough Naturopaths, oncologists, radiologists and surgeons, that you should spend a little time making sure you have the one that works for YOU. These are the people you will trust with life-changing decisions. Don’t settle for someone you don’t love. (Okay, I did kinda make one exception to my rule, and this was with my plastic surgeon. He simply didn’t have the bedside manner that was warm and fuzzy and supportive like the rest of my team. However, he was a perfectionist, and that was what I wanted from someone who would be rebuilding me. So, he was perfect for my team, even if not in the warm, fuzzy way).
4. I may need to start adding another this one to my list, and that is to give yourself credit for however, and whatever you do. As you now know, I’m still working on this one.