A friend recently found out that her cancer is stage IV and, understandably, is struggling to figure out what that means for her future. How can I support her?
Here are a few thoughts about what I’ve learned from my own journey that may be of help to someone navigating through a diagnosis of metastatic cancer:
Don’t get caught up in statistics. Those numbers are averages of thousands of people and don’t apply to individuals. For every person who’s on the short end of the scale, there’s someone on the other end; why shouldn’t it be you?
Do your research – or not. I happen to find it helpful to read books about others with my diagnosis or to explore options on the internet. For others, it just adds anxiety and stress. Do what feels comfortable to you. It’s OK if you don’t want to go there. Denial can be a good thing if helps you cope.
De-stress. Dealing with your emotions, the medical system, families, treatment side effects, etc. can make you feel cranky and stressed. I find meditation helps me (when I make the time to do it!). Take time each day to be quiet and focus on slowing your breath. I like to imagine joy coming into each part of my body, surrounding my organs (especially the lungs where the cancer is) and flowing down my limbs. Experiment with mental images until you find one that works for you.
Accept help. For many of those who are used to being independent, it’s hard to ask for help. Remember that others want to help but don’t know what to do. If there is something that you need (drives to treatments, company, a loan of movies or books, etc.) reach out to others. You are probably making them feel better by giving them an opportunity to do something helpful.
Laugh. “Laughter is the best medicine” is not just a cliché. People who make you laugh are gems and may be as important to how well you feel as your health practitioner. Good friends came over for dinner yesterday and we laughed all evening. I’ve been recording reruns of “Who’s Line Is It Anyway” every weekday at 5:30. It’s one show that makes me laugh out loud every time I watch it. Seek out people and situations that make you laugh, every day.
It’s OK to go to the ‘dark side’. That’s what I call the times when I feel like crap and thinking positive just isn’t an option: ‘the dark side’. I think it’s OK, and even healthy, to go there. Just don’t stay there. Sometimes I allow myself a day to wallow in it. Usually I get bored and move on when I’m ready. But I’ve found the more I fight it, the harder it is for me to get past it and be positive.
Ask questions. I find it hard to build a trusting relationship with doctors when I so often see a different one every time I go to the cancer clinic. I used to find it discouraging when I would get different answers to the same question from different doctors. I now see it as a variety of information that gives me more options. I’ve learned to take the answer that best works for me and discard the rest. I’ve also learned not to ask a question that I’m not ready to hear the answer to.
Appreciate your blessings. It might be difficult to feel grateful when you are first diagnosed and dealing with anger and fear. But eventually you move out of that phase and can appreciate the wonderful things that are still part of your life. I seem to appreciate those things more than I used to: the wonderful people who support me; simple things like a sunny day spent in nature; watching a good movie wrapped in a cozy blanket; waking up in the morning with no chemo side-effects. Things I used to take for granted have become all the more precious to me.
Life goes on. No matter what the prognosis, we’re all here right now, living our lives. Cancer doesn’t define me. My spirit is stronger than my body and I find ways to live my life with purpose every day. I’m more focused on what’s important than I’ve ever been in my life. Last week after a dear friend (who’s also going through treatments) and I went for a walk, we hugged and agreed that life is good. And, despite the challenges, it truly is!