As a wife and mother diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, I tried to balance battling this disease with all my energy and resources, while shielding my children from it. I only partially succeeded. It affected everyone in my family quite a bit. The good news, though, is that the cancer is under control. My husband and I are closer than ever, and our children are a little wiser than they were before, but no worse for the wear!
An inspirational talk by Thomas S. Monson that has lifted me many times when I have been discouraged.
Whether fighting cancer as a single person, married, working, or staying home with children, I have gained some insights that I think apply universally. Hopefully these bits of wisdom will be helpful to you:
Don’t Fight it Alone
First, you shouldn’t try to go through treatment alone. You may be tough as nails, or a very private person, not prone to relying on others for help, but this is no time to withdraw from loved ones.
Since I decided on chemotherapy, I knew my cancer could not be a private matter. It would be obvious to my family and friends that something was up when my hair fell out! After receiving the stunning news that the cancer had metastasized to my bones, Branden and I decided that we needed to just “get it out there” before I started chemo. I sent a mass email to our family and friends sharing details about my diagnosis and outlining our plans for beating it. Admittedly, I felt a bit exposed after I sent it out. It made our situation more real. But I was also relieved because I didn’t have to wonder when I was talking with someone if they “knew” or not. They did. I also had fewer questions to answer because of my initial openness.
“I was surprised how much it helped to know that people were on my side, praying for me, and willing to help our family during this crisis.”
Soon I began receiving many supportive messages that, honestly, gave me such a lift! An independent person by nature, I was surprised how much it helped to know that people were on my side, praying for me, and willing to help our family during this crisis. I don’t know what I would have done without that support. I kept everyone in the loop during treatment by creating a blog on caringbridge.com. For me, sharing the news of my cancer allowed me to focus fully on treatment.
Your Path is Unique and Personal
You may have the same diagnosis as me, but the details will be different, and you may feel differently about how you should treat, or even NOT treat, your cancer. I support the idea that stage 4 breast cancer is beatable, and it really is, but I don’t know who will beat it and who won’t. I don’t even know if I will beat it long term or not. What I do know is that if you feel like you should fight it, then, no matter what anyone else says you should fight it!
There are basically three options for treatment philosophy: Option one: Throw the kitchen sink at it. Fight it with everything you have, risking some harsh side-effects if necessary, in an attempt to completely get rid of the cancer and survive it long term. That was our approach the first time around.
The second option is to treat the cancer with the notion that you are holding it back for as long as possible, without making your life too miserable in the process. The people who choose this path have come to the conclusion that the cancer has probably spread too much to get rid of it entirely, but they also know that there are some amazing treatments out there that can be effective in stopping the progression of cancer for many years. This is the path that feels right for them. This is the approach I have taken the second time around.
The third group consists of those who feel that the side-effects from treatment are not worth increasing their life span. They don’t feel right about treating the cancer, and have decided to allow it to take its course while they enjoy their time left with loved ones, without enduring harsh treatment.
“Think and pray about what path is the most acceptable to you and what steps you should take. It is your life. Follow your feelings.”
I chose the path that felt right for me, and at times it was difficult for me to understand those who took a different path. But after all my chemo, hospitalizations, radiation, surgeries and drugs, and after lengthy and open conversations with other cancer patients, I know now that it is definitely a personal decision. There is not just one right answer for everyone. Educate yourself, learn as much as you can about your exact type of cancer and your treatment options. Get a few different opinions, then think and pray about what path is the most acceptable to you and what steps you should take. It is your life. Follow your feelings. Well-meaning friends or family members will come out of the woodwork with advice of therapies, herbs, or diets that they have heard will cure your cancer. If it is some hidden secret, I doubt it could be kept hidden from the medical world for too long without at least being tested, so watch out! But after you have truly educated yourself, you definitely have to go with what feels right for you.
Attitude is Everything
Once you have chosen your treatment plan, you must go forward with the best attitude you possibly can. Your life has been turned upside down. You have uncertainty, and it’s hard to think of anything else, but you have to live your life. For several months after my diagnosis I felt like I was trying so hard all the time at everything I was doing! My body was physically dealing with new drugs, or recovering from yet another surgery, or fatigued from chemo or radiation, but I was also trying to eat right, exercise, and keep up with my kids. Mentally I was trying to fight off feelings of depression and anxiety. Spiritually, I was trying to trust God and feel more peace.
Positive distractions lifted my mood. My wise husband hired a piano teacher for me, without my foreknowledge, because he knew I had always wanted to take lessons. I felt so strange sitting at the piano practicing for my next lesson while I was so sick, but it became rewarding for me to work on developing a talent. I practiced the piano every chance I got, and it was amazingly therapeutic for me. I also wrote about what I was going through, and I read anything I could that would lift my spirits. On the flip side, I found that I needed to avoid any movies, music, or people that would bring me down.
“I don’t honestly have any better answer for obtaining peace of mind than to pull out any faith you can muster and try it out for size.”
Keeping busy helped me during the day, but at night, when I desperately needed sleep, I often couldn’t find it. That’s when I felt the most vulnerable and not in control of my life. I felt like a little kid who needed to be held, and not like the strong person that I knew I needed to be. Sleep aids sometimes worked, and sometimes didn’t. Really, it was a process. To “get your game face on” for your battle with cancer you just have to keep trying. I found prayer to be very powerful for me, and helped me have peace in my heart many times. I know for certain that there is a God in heaven who loves you and me, and that He can be there for us when we seek Him. I don’t honestly have any better answer for obtaining peace of mind than to pull out any faith you can muster and try it out for size. If you have not been religious in the past, there is no better time to find your faith in God than when you are concerned about your own mortality. You will not be disappointed because He is really there!
Do Not Shrink!
To sum it all up, I will share a phrase from Neal A. Maxwell, a religious leader of my faith who died a few years ago after a long battle with leukemia. I really can’t say it better than he did. After a lot of chemotherapy he enjoyed a remission for several years before the disease returned. During his remission, when asked what he had learned from his battle with cancer, Neal A. Maxwell said he had learned that “to not shrink is more important than to survive.”
In the Garden of Gethsemane when Christ was suffering for the pains, sorrows, and sins of the world, His suffering was so great that He prayed to His Father and asked if the bitter cup could be removed from Him. Then he said, “Nevertheless, not my will, but Thine be done.” And the scriptures say that He “shrank not and partook of the bitter cup.” He did what He needed to do even though it was hard and painful. He was brave and willing to fulfill His mission in life. That is the reference. Whether you are religious or not, figure out what that phrase means for you. “Shrink not”.
“Cancer is a life lesson. Whether you physically survive or not is not as important as how you deal with it in the grand scheme of things.”
I have come across some cancer survivors who are willing to do anything to physically survive, but that seems to be the extent of it. They exercise, eat certain foods, and take many supplements. Sometimes it may turn into a bit of an obsession. Don’t get me wrong, that is part of the equation, but there is much more. If your life is not changed from battling cancer, then the opportunity to learn has been wasted. We come into this world innocent and free from cares, but over the years we become wiser because of the experiences and challenges in our life. We develop character and become less selfish. We love deeper and hopefully even care about others more than ourselves sometimes. All these virtues are developed from some of life’s hardest lessons.
Cancer is a life lesson. Whether you physically survive or not is not as important as how you deal with it in the grand scheme of things. Don’t spend the rest of your life battling cancer full-time. None of us will permanently “beat” death. No one! So obsessing is going to lead to a feeling of dread of the inevitable, whether it is sooner or later. This life is not the end, and the only thing you take with you is the person you have become. Have courage, live your life the way you truly want to live it, do the things you truly want to do, worry about someone besides yourself, be happy, and “shrink not”!