10 Things I Wish I Knew Prior to Being a Cancer Patient
Being diagnosed with Stage IV Melanoma at 29 years old has been quite the roller coaster. To say it was an abrupt change would be an understatement. The diagnosis process was more of a snowball effect. What started as something small and innocuous, turned into something very, very terrible. At every point in testing, we kept uncovering more and more things. It turned out all these spots weren't coincidences, I had Stage IV Melanoma.
I’d like to think that if I was armed with more knowledge at the front end of my situation, things would be different, but that’s probably just the optimist in me speaking. There is just something about having this awful experience that brings so much perspective (and appreciation) to the world around you.
Here are 10 things I wish I knew about living with cancer prior to being diagnosed:
1. You will develop a very deep understanding of what it’s like to have your world flipped upside-down it a matter of seconds. You’ll never forget the day of your diagnosis and you likely didn’t anticipate it. One moment you’re fine and the next you’re tasked with fighting for your life. It doesn’t matter what type of cancer you have or what kind of treatment you’re going through, it’s a quality we all share.
2. Cancer doesn’t discriminate. This is the hardest thing in the world to wrap your head around – but it’s the truth. It’s hard not to ask the “why” questions about a cancer diagnosis but you’ll likely never find the answers. You’ll ruin yourself with “shoulda, woulda, coulda” mental games because none of that matters. Cancer doesn’t give a f*ck what kind of person you are. It doesn’t care if you have a family, it doesn’t care if you’re healthy, it does. not. discriminate.
3. There are no guarantees and logic doesn’t apply. You’ll likely have been taught your whole life that the end result of anything is a direct correlation of the effort you put in to it. That is not the case with cancer. It’s not logical. There is no “cause and effect” situation happening – the rules simply don’t apply. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to fight your disease, but a worsening prognosis is not a reflection of you.
4. You’ll learn to be flexible. Nothing ever goes according to plan. You think you have the perfect treatment plan in place, you might have full trust in your doctors, but things will change 100% of the time. Every person and every cancer is different. Don’t compare yourselves to others, and know that things will change. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Don’t get caught up planning for steps 1-10; that will seem insurmountable. Rather, focus on what’s immediately in front of you and take it one step at a time, one day at a time.
5. Just because you know what to expect doesn’t make it any easier experiencing it. Your doctors will likely communicate common side effects. You’ll find online communities or have friends/family that have been through similar situations. You’ll think you have a pretty good idea of what you’re being thrown into, but that doesn’t make it any easier to process and/or handle it.
6. Cancer is arguably more emotionally taxing than it is physically. This is obviously dependent on the type of cancer diagnosis and treatment plan you have, but do not ignore the emotional side effects. Healing mentally is just as important and is often an afterthought. Your body will go into fight mode, but that is only sustainable for so long.
7. People will assume you don’t want to talk about your cancer. Maybe they’re afraid they can’t handle it or maybe they’re thinking they’re doing you a favor by not bringing it up – but people probably won’t genuinely ask how you’re doing. They’ll likely tiptoe their way around the situation and proceed with caution. I personally find that by talking about my diagnosis, prognosis and treatment “journey” it helps me process it. Pretending like it’s not there isn’t an option for me, and it’s hard to find ways to inject it into conversations without seeming like you’re trying to play the “cancer card.”
8. Your friends likely won’t get it. That sounds harsher than I mean it to, but I don’t know how else to put it. Some friends will try, but the majority won’t understand. They might be shocked, sad and/or upset for a period of time, but ultimately their life will go on as normal and your cancer won’t be top of mind for them. Unless they have been personally affected by cancer, they won’t understand that you’re dealing with something every single day of your life. And unlike a head cold, it doesn’t get better in a week or so. You’ll hear things like “it’ll all be okay” or “you’ll get through it” and while those statements are meant to be inspiring and heart-felt, it will, at times, feel like a punch to the gut. Just remember, they have the best intentions.
9. Being a cancer patient is a full-time job. Taking care of yourself will become your number one priority. It’ll feel selfish and it may be difficult to balance competing priorities, but this is your time to put yourself first.
10. Have hope. It’s important to not get caught up in the negativity of having cancer. Yes, it sucks! A million percent it sucks. But remaining hopeful is a choice and will be your saving grace. Make sure you’re realistic with your prognosis, but don’t let anyone take that hope away from you.
I know I’m not the only cancer survivor (I feel weird using that word) with these thoughts. In fact, I hope that I’m not. There is a huge population of cancer survivors out there, and we spend a lot of our time complaining about our misfortune. While I’m not pretending like I don’t do that (I promise you I do), there are SO many of us that understand what it’s like to have cancer. Armed with positive (yet realistic) energy, imagine what we could do for those that are newly diagnosed, actively fighting, or just generally feeling lost in this storm. There is something oddly beautiful about sharing your experience and being able to help someone else through something so terrible.