On taking a mental health break from cancer in order to rekindle a sense of hope.
Susan F was unwillingly thrust into the world of metastatic breast cancer after a routine mammogram in 2012. She uses her powers of persuasion, knowledge and writing for good in hopes of helping others similarly affected. She is a patient advocate, volunteering with METAvivor (metavivor.org), a volunteer organization raising funds for research in metastatic breast cancer.
In July, I got married. In the middle of a period of incredible sadness, suddenly I was taking part in a hopeful experience, a celebration of a loving future with my wonderful husband. It was an entirely new world for me. Before getting married, it was just me in the world, and I had gotten good at soldiering through my diagnosis. But now I was married, and I had someone else to worry about. Suddenly, I found myself worrying about the future of my illness. How long before the suffering of cancer takes over my life? What if I become disabled and my poor husband has to care for me? Will there be enough time for my husband and me to enjoy a normal married life?
At this point, there is little reason for me to worry. I am lucky. The cancer is responsive to treatment, so I am able to work and enjoy life with my husband. I have a shot at several years before the cancer begins to take bits of my life away. We can have a normal married life. But the one sure way for me to not enjoy married life is to become engulfed by pain and suffering that is not yet here. Even if our marriage were to only last a short time, to spend that time consumed by fear and anxiety would be a true sin.
I am very active on social media, using Twitter to stay abreast of the latest in breast cancer research. Every announcement of a new drug is a balloon on which my hope can soar. The downside of social media, though, is that I also am privy to other people's cancer stories. I see the woman whose cancer has spread to her brain and is receiving chemo through a port installed in her skull. I read the announcements of women and men being placed in hospice. And then, shortly thereafter, I read the announcements of their death. It is difficult for me to turn away from others’ suffering. I was raised by a kind mother who encouraged my already kind heart. But watching a constant stream of pain via social media has only resulted in my becoming more consumed by crippling fears.
Thankfully, I have found life-saving support through Sharsheret
, an incredible organization that helps Jewish women through ovarian and breast cancer. My counselor, Shera Dubitsky, talks to me about my fears, helps me to focus on just today, and reminds me that everyone’s cancer story is different and we all respond to different treatments in different ways. But most importantly at this point, she gives me permission to take a break from the cancer community when I am overwhelmed. And I am overwhelmed.
So for a while, I’ve begun to back away. I’ve hidden certain things from my view on social media, and I’ve stopped checking certain groups on Facebook. I needed to do this in order to keep what is left of my hope alive. I feel a sense of guilt backing away, but I also know that adding to my own suffering doesn’t help at all. I can say a prayer and take the break I need. As Dr. Jerome Groopman puts it so well in his book The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness:
“Each disease is uncertain in its outcome, and within that uncertainty, we find real hope, because a tumor has not always read the textbook, and a treatment can have an unexpectedly dramatic impact. This is the great paradox of true hope: Because nothing is absolutely determined, there is not only reason to fear but also reason to hope. And so we must find ways to bridle fear and give greater rein to hope.”
Right now I need to hold on to that hopeful uncertainty and give myself the break from cancer I need. It’s the only way I can focus on living the life I have in front of me right now. I’m sure my husband will appreciate it.