From the start, let me say that I do not mean to imply that anyone diagnosed with cancer or any other disease is lucky for having received the diagnosis. I also want to emphasize that there is a tremendous spectrum that anyone living with cancer can experience, from benign to devastating.
The word “cancer” has a lot of power in our culture. It can hang as a black cloud over our lives or the lives of loved ones. We may think of powerlessness, uncertainty, death, pain, suffering, weakness, debility, or a host of other fearful connotations. It is almost assured to suck the air out of any conversation when it comes up. When someone I have not seen in a while asks, “What’s new?” I have to decide whether to bring up the CLL diagnosis and let that hijack the conversation, or to leave it unsaid.
But cancer can also bring out the best in us. Who can help but be inspired by the stories of individuals who face surgery or debilitating chemotherapy, coming out the other side while maintaining strength and positivity throughout? I have had a number of patients over the years whose rooms I entered expecting to pity them for their diagnosis or symptom burden, instead leaving buoyed by their calm and poise in the face of adversity.
We also underestimate the positive impact of a death due to cancer. This is one of the reasons that I prefer to think of cancer as a journey rather than a battle. Death is not a loss in some great battle. Life itself is a terminal condition. Someone is not weak if they cannot “beat” their cancer. I have had the privilege to be present with a number of patients and families facing death due to a cancer. I vividly recall several whose courage, dignity, acceptance, and curiosity in the face of death continue to be a model for how I hope to live my own life.
On a personal note, I am fortunate that my CLL and blood counts have been stable, with no need for chemotherapy on the horizon yet. I am feeling well. There is loss associated with my own cancer diagnosis – I cancelled our planned 9-month sabbatical to Thailand and Tanzania. There is also the fear of CLL shortening my life, uncertainty about when/if I will need chemotherapy, and anger that this happened to me after living a relatively healthy life thus far.
But CLL has also been a gift. It is one of those things that seized me by the back of the neck and forced me to examine my own life. And I have made changes: I am forcing myself to cut back on additional projects and even decreasing my FTE a little bit to allow my body to recover longer after weeks on service.
This summer, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to help teach a course in Thailand (click here if interested). Instead of just going and working, as I have in the past, I will be bringing my family along and spending time with them afterwards. It may not be a whole academic year, but it will still be a great family experience.
I am also striving to be more mindful and present both at home and at the hospital, avoiding the “monkey mind” flitting from thought to thought, half-concentrating on several things and engaging in none of them fully. My challenge for the month of February and March was to avoid pulling out my iPhone to check e-mail while waiting for the elevator. I can not say that I was 100 percent successful, but it was an improvement. Same idea with parenting – I have been trying to avoid checking e-mail or Facebook while at my sons’ activities like basketball or concerts. It is rare that I really needed to return that message right then, or that I would learn something all that important from a Facebook status update.
I cannot claim to be focusing on stress, sleep, exercise, and nutrition with the same fervor I had after my diagnosis last June, but I am doing my best. Most importantly, my own diagnosis has helped me to put my stressors at work and home in more perspective. I like to think that I have been calmer and less prone to get worked up over more minor issues since my diagnosis. Like most of us, de-stressing and focusing on work-life balance was on my agenda for a long time. But I am not sure that I would have looked into things as quickly or directly had I not been diagnosed with cancer. For that I am thankful.