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Cancer: The Take Away

The first thing cancer took away was my innocence. I still remember what it was like to hear those five words: "I'm sorry, you have cancer."
PUBLISHED January 19, 2016
Linnea Olson was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer in April of 2005. In addition to being a vocal advocate for cancer patients, Linnea is a mother, artist, writer, friend, adventurer. She refers to herself as a terminal optimist; someone who is living (each day to the fullest) with stage 4 lung cancer. Linnea also writes at outlivinglungcancer.com.
The first thing cancer took away was my innocence. I still remember what it was like to hear those five words: "I’m sorry, you have cancer" — the rushing in my ears coupled with a sense of nausea and vertigo, but mostly the realization that I could no longer operate under the assumption that I was safe.

Cancer is not just a personal tragedy and my family got smacked upside the head as well; none harder than our then seven-year-old son. Growing up with a parent who has cancer means that the focus is often shifted away from you, the child. Playdates get scuttled, routines disrupted and an air of anxiety and worry permeates. Worst-case scenario, you have to deal with the fact that your parent is dying, as my youngest did in the summer of 2008. That is a hard thing to recover from.

Fortunately for our family, we were introduced to Camp Kesem, an incredible organization that offers free week-long summer camps to children who have a parent with cancer (and which is enrolling for next summer now). Our son Peter counts the five weeks he spent at Camp Kesem as among the best of his life. Before he went to camp, he couldn’t talk about my cancer and now he wants to major in biology with an emphasis on cancer research.

It’s interesting what cancer does to friendship. After my diagnosis, some people stepped up to the plate in the most extraordinary ways. My friend Miranda arranged for meals to be delivered to our house for the entire three months it took for my four rounds of chemotherapy. Other friends just sort of faded unexpectedly away. It's something that still surprises me.

Prior to my diagnosis, my marriage had been a little shaky but for the first few years, we really rallied. I would say we were really close up until the time I was restaged to 4. Had I passed away in 2008 as predicted, I would have died a happily married woman. Instead, I responded to an experimental therapy and a new chapter began. I was still terminal but now I was also chronically ill. It takes a special person to live with, love and care for someone who has a chronic illness. Ultimately my marriage ended and I am now navigating life with a terminal illness as a single person.

Of course there is the big hit that happens physically. Surgery, multiple chemotherapies — which is said to accelerate aging on a cellular level — and four targeted therapies; each with a plethora of side effects. Weight loss, weight gain, cavities, thinning hair, no hair, hair in strange places, skin rashes, edema, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, neuropathy, liver toxicity, cognitive affect and personality changes have all been side effects of treatment. Sometimes it can feel like insult to injury — you mean I have to have cancer and look/feel like hell too?

The greatest loss has been when my friends pass away. Initially, I was hesitant of becoming close to others with lung cancer as I didn’t want to compare my situation to theirs. It was utterly devastating when the first time someone I’d developed a bond with passed away. However, it had been such a mutually beneficial relationship that I was undeterred. Now I count those friendships as one of the perks of cancer (really!), something I will go into more detail about with my next post. First, I would love to get a conversation started. What cancer has taken from you?
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