Facing Cancer without Falling Apart
by Diane Tefft Young, MA, LICDC, CS
I was diagnosed with cancer in late January 2015. Three tiny vaginal blood droplets were the single symptom alerting me to this emerging health scare. A hysterectomy at the Cleveland Clinic was scheduled in part to confirm my diagnosis but also to remove my cancerous uterine endometrium. Just minutes before being discharged from the hospital, I learned that I had been harboring stage IIIC endometrial cancer. My shock was compounded as I considered how my four-year-old lung transplant would accommodate this new wrinkle in my overall health.
At the initial meeting with my gynecological oncologist, I listened attentively and asked few questions as she presented my seven-month comprehensive treatment plan. As the plan was discussed, I awkwardly envisioned myself in each of the proposed treatment settings even though I had never visited them. The plan to rid my body of cancer included four 5-hour chemotherapy sessions spread over three months, followed by 28 exhausting daily radiation visits. Once completed, I was to be rewarded with a seriously needed and appreciated month-long break. Treatment resumed as I underwent the two final fall chemo sessions.
Historically, my intuition has shed reassuring light upon soon-to-be-revealed treatment outcomes. This time, however, the Wednesday morning before the Thanksgiving holiday of 2015, I felt anxious and, honestly, terrified. A deepening sense of powerlessness refused to leave my thoughts. My appetite absented itself; my anxiety simply wouldn’t let go. I hadn’t a clue what that day’s CT results would reveal. I left the cancer center in good spirits primarily because the scan was over, completed. While driving home, the phone rang; it was my oncology nurse who confirmed the test results, saying, “You may now call yourself a ‘Cancer Survivor.’” Spontaneous tears of relief and gratitude rolled down my cheeks as I repeated silently under my breath, “Thanks be to God.”
Despite being diagnosed with many illnesses, including idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, supra-ventricular tachycardia heart disease, Nocardia pneumonia, multiple skin cancers, a recent closed sternal fracture, and now endometrial cancer, I have a nonpugilistic attitude toward treatment. I am happier living a peaceful and creative life. I tend to see treatment as a pathway to health and wellness. This is accompanied by an unyielding desire to see and to experience the joy and beauty in life, instead of fighting yet another battle with a newly unfolding health issue.
Living with a wide variety of diagnoses requires steady resilience. A kind of resilience that does not go on vacation. Even for a day! Resiliency allows you to deploy personal skills and strengths to manage difficult and challenging conditions without being swept away by the drama and chaos caused by illness or, even scarier, the unknown.
How that resiliency looks can vary from person to person. Being able to keep a positive attitude despite the circumstance often sets the tone. Determination, organization, flexibility, hope, trust, curiosity, bravery, courage, and patience, all are potential aspects of resilience. When you’re able to keep a sense of humor, especially about yourself, everyone from family to friends to hospital and healthcare staff benefits. Once you build up resiliency, often, tasks are accomplished that were once thought beyond, even far beyond, your anticipated reach. Is it possible that one of the most valuable skills a person needs is the willingness to live with, even for lengthy periods of time, ambiguity?
Confidence may be regained as you bounce back from serious diagnoses or challenging health experiences. The ability to remain calm and steady when threatened by the unknown or by diagnoses laced with fear is one of the gifts that may come from facing a resilience-testing experience.
As for me, my plans for this summer include several creative projects. First, I hope to develop a healthcare blog devoted to resilience. My second project will be to design and build a 30-square-foot, five-sided master bedroom closet.
So, it is with a second “Thanks be to God” that I close; believing that without experiencing illness and recovery, infused with generous doses of resilience, I would never have the courage to anticipate a summer with these two projects that eagerly invite creativity and joy into my life. Thanks be to God.
Diane Young is a skin and uterine cancer survivor living in Upper Arlington, OH. She has written two health memoirs, Cancer Hope: Discovering Survivor Skills and Humbled by the Gift of Life: Reflections on Receiving a Lung Transplant.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2018.