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After Cancer, Looking Forward Gratefully

by Amy Lynn Dee, EdD

Wellness image

Dr. Amy Lynn Dee

How did this happen to me? I fol­lowed all the rules, consumed healthy food, exercised regularly, got routine check-ups, went to church, volunteered, and generally felt vigor­ous and well. Still, cancer marched in and made itself a home in my lym­phatic system.

The last line of my patient appoint­ment summary from the day I was diagnosed with lymphoma reads, “She is stunned.” Yes, I was utterly dumb­founded when I was told I had cancer and thus faced the challenge of both becoming “un-stunned” and reconciling myself to a new identity as a “person with cancer.” Moving from stupefied disbelief to a focused acceptance of this unlucky diagnosis required deep reflection, and along the way, I stopped viewing myself as just a patient and became a true survivor.

Having grown weary of cancer invading my every thinking moment in the weeks following my diagnosis, I decided to defy this ugly disease, and I made some fundamental decisions that allowed me to get through the next several months of chemotherapy. Deciding how I was going to cope with cancer began with the belief that it would all be OK in the end, no matter what happened. There was so much about cancer outside of my control that I had to concentrate on those things over which I actually had some power.

I gave up all attempts at becoming an amateur oncologist
by way of the Internet.

With or without cancer, we cannot control how many years, months, weeks, days, or minutes we have left. We can only control our outlook and actions in the moment in which we currently live. While I remain angry that cancer came, I have accepted it as a part of my life, and I now rely on three decisions I made early on that influence my outlook and allow me to make the most of every day.

1. Trust
Before I could move forward with my treatment, I decided I had to trust my medical team. This may seem uncomplicated on the surface, but when you’ve lived in a family with enough medical background to make the rare surgical and diagnostic blunders part of casual conversation, the tendency to second-guess health professionals becomes fixed at an early age. However, I now choose to walk a different path and trust my doctor and nurses with my life. While I continue to ask questions at every medical ap­pointment, I know I can’t nurture a misguided illusion that I’m a medical expert, or that I can become one in a few months. This decision meant that I gave up all attempts at becoming an amateur oncologist by way of the Internet.

Online searches did nothing but cause stress during the early stage of my illness, and I knew if I was to remain emotionally healthy during treatment, I had to have confidence in my medical team. I felt like I was get­ting the best care available for my type of cancer, so giving up Google allowed me to focus on remaining positive, and I was able to stop worrying about all the conflicting information out there on the Web. I realized that a few minutes checking on a possible treatment option could quickly turn into wasted hours and increased anxiety. And although research can provide a starting place for conversations with your doctor, I found that most research available to the gen­eral public examines cancer at a bird’s eye view, and the specifics of your cancer, along with your medical history, can profoundly affect general statistics and outcomes.

2. Boldness
My second decision was to face cancer directly – plainly and boldly. I immediately shared my diagnosis with my personal and profes­sional circles. Some survivors prefer to keep health issues private, but cancer was too big for me to hide from, so hid­ing simply was not allowed. I wanted others to feel comfortable comparing my story against theirs or that of a loved one. I also wanted people to feel free to ask me about cancer. Conversa­tion can provide a bit of catharsis, so I didn’t see talking about my cancer as a negative thing.

I will never give cancer the status of calling it a blessing, but I will admit that it has increased my appreciation for things I once took for granted.

Facing cancer head-on also meant that I chose not to hide my shiny bald scalp. I wore hats outside when it was cold, but I attended meetings, taught classes, went to church, and shopped without a head covering. While I occasionally felt the stares of small children, and sometimes even very large children in their forties, fifties, and sixties, the decision to expose my “cancer head” was not a difficult one for me, mainly because I had surrounded myself with good people who were encouraging and supportive. I learned that the definition of beauty should never depend upon something so trivial as hair.

Ultimately, I wanted people to know that cancer does not discriminate: it walks among us, it is unattractive and challenging, and it is life changing. Cancer can happen to anyone, and it happens far too often.

3. Gratitude
While misery was cer­tainly an option, I decided instead to spend my time healing with as much gratitude and joy as possible. This third decision kept me from hiding under a blanket and crying all day. I’m not saying there were no tears along the way. Believe me; I shed plenty of tears in anger for life interrupted, grief for changed plans, and fear of the unknown. Crying is a natural response. But it is not always helpful or productive if it does not lead to resolve.

When I decided that living despon­dently meant cancer wins, I thought about the one thing I am most grateful for – the people in my life who love and support me – and I knew that joyful living could very well transform the months of treatment from being filled with depression to being full of health and wellness. This mindset helped me see beyond the fear and to the convic­tion that cancer is not the end. Far beyond remission or the statistics and outcomes of treatment, I would be OK, no matter how many years, months, weeks, days, or minutes I have left.

How did this happen to me? There are some questions for which there are no answers. And instead of trying to figure it out, I consider how I might become a better person in the aftermath of cancer treatment. I will never give cancer the status of calling it a blessing, but I will admit that it has increased my appreciation for things I once took for granted. Life is a little bit slower now, wrinkled clothes don’t bother me, hugs are a little longer, and I now see good hair days as way overrated. Listening has become genuinely hearing, acquiring experiences means more than accumu­lating material goods, and kindness matters the most of all.

Cancer happened to me, and I de­cided to fight back with trust, boldness, and gratitude. Now I am a survivor looking forward to the years ahead … gratefully.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Amy Lynn Dee is an associate professor at George Fox University in Newberg, OR, where she teaches in the Master of Arts in Teaching program and serves as the director of Accreditation and Assessment in the Uni­versity’s College of Education. Amy lives in Oregon with her husband of 35 years and has two grown children.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2016.