This story starts several years ago in 2009. One day I woke up and I had blood in my urine. As a nurse, I knew that this meant I either had a kidney stone or I had cancer. Turns out, it was the latter. I was diagnosed with Stage 1 bladder cancer. The surgery was relatively easy, and the cancer was gone. No big deal. I could move on with my life, just get regular check-ups to monitor for any signs of recurrence, but it could easily be managed.
In 2011 during one of my many follow-up cystoscopies, bladder cancer reared its ugly head again. I was shocked that cancer came back as I thought it never would. But since I was doing so much follow up, the surgery was the same, easy, cancer gone. This recurrence bought me years of cystoscopies and CT scans to ensure the cancer was kept at bay. My last cystoscopy told me I am free of bladder cancer. YEA!
Unexpectedly in 2014, a CT scan revealed a shady area, something my urologist said should be checked. He is an excellent doctor and I trust him implicitly. He ordered a colonoscopy immediately. I already had one scheduled for the next month, but I was not given the option of waiting.
I remember lying on the table during the colonoscopy watching the images– and I knew. I knew right then something was wrong. I saw what they were about to tell me; there was a tumor in my rectum. It was early October, just a couple of weeks before my 51st birthday, that I was diagnosed with Stage 2 rectal cancer. Kinda hard to believe –me, the high fiber, healthy eating, weight lifting nurse who spent her career educating patients on wise food choices was diagnosed with two unrelated cancers.
I want you to know this for a few reasons:
- It makes me even more compassionate and PASSIONATE about helping you with your health issues.
- Having to go through radiation/chemo and surgery and more chemo and then another surgery taught me a thing or two about myself.
- I think as a society we need to talk more about cancer.
- We need strategies for coping with our own cancer.
- We need to learn how to support those we love who have cancer.
Here is what cancer has taught me so far:
- You need to ask for help when you need it.
- When your body tells you to rest, eat, move, or not pick up heavy things up after major abdominal surgery, LISTEN TO IT.
- If you don’t listen to yourself, then at least listen to those who love you — they just might be right.
- You cannot control everything.
- You CAN control your attitude.
- A bad attitude only makes everything worse.
- Many people say stupid things to you when you have cancer because they don’t know what to say.
- Just because you have cancer does not mean you are going to die.
- It’s ok to cry.
- It’s ok to be sad.
- You can be pissed at life and be grateful at the same time.
- When you feel yourself getting overwhelmed thinking about what you are facing, focus on where you are in that moment.
- Cancer provides you with a sense of urgency to stop making the same mistakes (mostly).
Which is a nice transition into this:
My radiation/chemotherapy schedule began in November of 2014. I had to go to treatment five days per week for six weeks. I was in complete shock that I had been diagnosed with Stage II rectal cancer. After I got over the initial panic, I vowed that I would get through it – with a positive attitude. No matter what, I would get up and go to the damn hospital every day and “just do it.” I treated it as if it were my job. It helped me to objectify cancer, and this made the treatment more doable for me.
Into the 5th week, as I laid down on that cold, hard table, bare-assed and ready to get “beamed up” for the 25th time, I started thinking about what was coming up next: major abdominal surgery plus a temporary ileostomy (external poop bag) for several months. After that, 15 weeks of more chemo and then another surgery to remove the ileostomy. Damn, a whole year would pass before I was going to be done. I felt so overwhelmed by what I was facing that a tear snuck out of my eye. It was immediate and shocking to me. Instead of letting it flow, I just told myself, “focus on right this second.”
As soon as I said that to myself, I felt better. I felt less anxious. I could cope with just me and that table. The weird part was that I wasn’t in denial (I know a thing or two about using denial as a coping mechanism). I wasn’t just pushing the overwhelming feelings away and not dealing — I simply felt better. That is what this whole “living in the moment” is all about. Just dealing with what you are facing right then and there. It made it all very doable for me, and I was able to get through that overload sensation rather than avoid it. I GOT THROUGH IT.
As soon as the radiation treatment was over, I lowered my hospital gown, hopped down from the table, and felt much calmer. I didn’t think about what was coming up next. I chose to stay in the moment. As it turns out, that moment wasn’t so bad after all. I must clarify and tell you that if it was just a cry I needed I would have done that. I knew that it was more than that. I was freaking myself out thinking about the upcoming months and me freaking out on that table was NOT an option. That is why I chose to be in the moment — that is how I coped with enormous anxiety. If you need to cry, by all means, cry. If you find yourself freaking yourself out by what feels like an insurmountable amount of whatever, focus on the present, on what is going on right then. If you can do that, I know you will feel better. I will keep this new coping skill in my emotional tool belt. It has proven more than once to be a lifesaver. And if you read on to part two you will see that my cancer journey was just beginning.