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Advice on Learning to Listen, or Not, After the Cancer Diagnosis

A cancer diagnosis can send people reeling. Who should you listen to as you decide the next step? Who should you ignore?
PUBLISHED August 17, 2016
Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website: www.feliciamitchell.net
Dear you, I mean you, the one standing there, startled by the headlights of a diagnosis called cancer. Step aside. It is not your time to be run down. Scoot to the side of the road, take a deep breath, and listen.

Listen. I have travelled this road. I know its dips and turns and blind spots. I know what it feels like to be startled by a diagnosis. I know what it does not feel like. But how I feel, or how I have felt, or how your best friend’s second cousin felt when she got cancer, is not how you feel now or how you should feel now or ever. You get to decide how you feel.

Sure, everybody who sees you standing there will have something to say about which direction to take or which road to travel. Friends, total strangers in waiting rooms and grocery stores, and even I, another total stranger, will try to offer advice. Listen to everybody and listen to nobody. It is your cancer.

I do want to say that doctors are the exception. Listen. A medical professional does not use the word “cancer” to send a person into a panic. If you have a good doctor, he or she will offer reliable advice, help you to seek second and third opinions if necessary, and listen to your concerns about the diagnosis.

Because I live in rural Appalachia, somebody suggested that I travel to a major medical center. Living ten minutes from a regional cancer center, I decided that I would trust my local system. At one point, my team did share my case with another medical center. Good doctors, even in rural areas, will take care of you. Listen. Doctors in big cities or small towns know to seek second opinions, make referrals and advocate for you.

My doctors were part of a care team that also included a nurse navigator. I involved family and friends, yet made my own decisions, too. It is, of course, easier to make decisions if you are not overwhelmed. How did I avoid feeling overwhelmed? Doing research, talking, resting, tuning out unwelcome advice and exercising all helped. Ask yourself this question: How will I avoid feeling overwhelmed? Listen. Listen to your gut, and realize that gut instincts can evolve. For example, as much as I always said that I would never let a drop of chemo enter my temple of a body, the moment I learned of my diagnosis, I decided to let go of a fear of chemo that was rooted in a brother’s treatment decades earlier. I allowed medical professionals help me to understand why surgery, chemo, a biological drug and radiation would come closest to allowing me to live my life fully until it was not mine to live anymore.

Within a month of your diagnosis, you, too, may learn about alternatives sworn to be the best inventions since white bread. Listen. What will you choose to hear? Somebody may recommend an herbal tea that will cure any cancer at any stage. Somebody else may give you a copy of Kris Carr’s awesome documentary, Crazy Sexy Cancer. Being a vegan is fine unless you choose instead to eat red meat after decades of not eating it, the way I did after a nurse suggested it could benefit my blood.

I know that not everybody trusts modern medicine. You do not have to. But if I could wish one thing for you, I would wish you would listen. The friend who told me that I might give a wheatgrass fast a go instead of medical treatment? Well, wheatgrass did not seem to be the antidote for infiltrating ductal carcinoma that had spread to lymph nodes. Somebody may remind you that prayer will cure all. Prayer helps and can move mountains, but adding a round of chemo to a round of prayer is not sacrilegious.

Fortunately, most people I know were supportive in simple ways when my diagnosis sideswiped me, recommending books like Keith Block’s Life Over Cancer, sharing experiences and offering to take notes at appointments. They honored my choices. Your support system will follow your lead and listen to you, just as your doctors will.

Okay, you. Do not stand there too long. Be diligent as you move past the shock of a diagnosis. Yours may be a long road, it may be a short road, and it may be a network of highways that requires the patience of Job. Whatever it is, you will forge your own path.
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