I was a bad sport about my first cancer. Please learn from me.
At the time of my first diagnosis of breast cancer at age 46, I was very scared and became extremely self-focused for many months. Looking back at that more than five years later, I am not happy about it. I am not proud of it. At the time, I was blessed with faith, family and friends, but I still wasn’t gracious about having cancer.
My lack of grace about my breast cancer hurt my teenage daughters and husband. I am truly sorry. I regret it. I had choices about how I handled things, and I wish I had done some of them differently.
I was diligent. I researched. I chose my medical team carefully. I followed the doctors’ instructions in a way that was almost obsessive-compulsive. I ate healthfully and I even exercised through chemotherapy and radiation. I tried to earn my “A” as a cancer patient, even though that now strikes me as a totally bogus objective. Now I wish that I worked to earn my “A” as a person. I had to learn ways to better cope emotionally with cancer because at times, it felt like it was eating me up from the inside out. But just out of the gate, before I learned those methods, I didn’t behave well.
What have I done about it? I spoke to my grown children and husband and apologized. My apologies don’t fix the past or make things right, but they are what I can do at this point. I have also resolved, with the help of my faith and my lessons painfully learned, to be a better life and death role model going down the road.
What would I have changed? More often, I would have vocally acknowledged the fear of dying, instead of holding it inside and sometimes acting out. I would have explained to my daughters that the emotional outbursts, that happened more often than I wish I had let them, were a combination of fear of dying and emotions that resulted from hormones that were messed up by steroids and chemotherapy treatment.
Cancer didn’t excuse my behavior, but maybe tempering it with explanations and keeping my upsets more private would have helped my family. I don’t like what I modeled, or rather, failed to model.
If I could go back in time, I would do it differently. Everyone is going to die. Some of us are going to have life-threatening events before we die. It is a careful line to walk. Going back, I would still have gone through my cancer authentically and I wish I had used my words to better express what I was experiencing. When I got the second cancer, melanoma, I behaved more calmly. I couldn’t pretend it was my first rodeo. I knew the drill and what questions to ask about the pathology report—kind, stage, grade— and how to make a plan. I also knew that I was allowed to just let myself feel what I was feeling, and I could choose to make better choices about how I behaved.
I wish I had been better prepared to hear my first cancer diagnosis. Is that even possible? I don’t know.
What do you think? I am not looking for comfort to excuse my poor behavior here. I would just like to know other cancer survivors’ thoughts and to ultimately hope that some good for other survivors can come from my mistakes.
Excuse me, but are you out of your friggin' mind? You're apologizing for behaving the only way you were equipped to behave at the time? Cut yourself some slack, woman. Cancer DOES an excuse your behavior. You can't possibly prepare for the experience. It seems like what you're apologizing for is losing control. You did not make mistakes. There is no right or wrong way to have cancer. You are beating yourself up for something you can't change now and couldn't have done differently then. Let it go and be kind to yourself. You are a wonderful writer and have shared some amazing insights about cancer. I would like to see you write a book about how different people react to cancer, learn from it and what survivorship is like for them. I have had cancer 3 times - squamous cell of the tongue, breast cancer and skin cancer. I fell apart like a cheap suit the first time. I was a total brat. Lucky for me, I had a doctor who treated me like a frightened 6-year-old who just needed to be reassured and loved.
Love your articles and hope to see many more in the future.
Thank you for being understanding. I agree--I can't change the past (but maybe others can learn from me being willing to talk about it and embarrass myself a bit) and cancer is very scary the first time in a society that doesn't do well talking about death. I did write a book to help fellow survivors "Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools" and I love your idea about writing a book with perspectives of many different people and their thoughts about their cancer. Appreciate your ideas above!
Another way to be gentle with yourself would be to have a few sessions with a family systems consultant (a kind of therapist). Someone using this theoretical model could help you discern whether any influences in the “wider system” might have put a pressure on you that couldn’t have helped and that influenced the behavior you regret. You might come to see that anyone in your shoes at the time would have behaved the same way. Not that we don’t bear responsibility for what we do, but it takes a big load off the shoulders, and it paints a more realistic picture, if there were factors along this line that you couldn’t control. Also, this kind of insight could help you be prepared if another challenge come along more than sheer will power could. In addition, it might lead to family systems and intergenerational insight (such as patterns) that could help your daughters incase they ever have a serious health diagnosis. Good luck on your journey and blessings to you and your family.
You have a responsibility as a well-known author on cancer to write things that help people cope emotionally, not make them feel guilty about "not being gracious about having cancer," and "not being a good sport." Your article will make many people who are struggling with a devastating diagnosis try to live up to an unrealistic and unhealthy ideal. Your ideal, not theirs. I did not act out emotionally after each of my two cancer diagnoses, but I would never presume to tell somebody who wasn't reacting as I did that there was something wrong with their reaction. Perhaps if you were more compassionate toward yourself, as other people have suggested, you might be more gracious and compassionate to other cancer patients whom you think are behaving badly. (I know this sounds harsh, but I believe your attitude is so destructive that I can't say it more graciously..)
My goodness! Let's all take a couple deep breaths and give ourselves hugs. I appreciate the discussion. Especially in regards to allowing ourselves to feel and express our greatest fears and our greatest hopes. It's important to be tolerant, understanding, and forgiving of ourselves and others. There is no rehearsal for perfection when it comes to anything; especially life threatening cancer.
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