Cancer, COVID-19 and Living With Change

Channeling the fear of unwanted change into the hard-fought promise of a transformed life.

As a parent, I've been at a fair number of meetings where a school administrator will tell the audience that "change is hard" as she announces a new plan that impacts one (or usually more) parts of the school.

Because I can be a bristly person, I usually bristle at this. Change is hard, but by just repeating this maxim, the person speaking manages to minimize both the importance of the change being proposed and the ability of critical voices to be heard. It says, "Whatever you're feeling isn't real. You're just afraid because it's new."

Five and half years ago, when I was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, I faced the biggest unwanted and unanticipated change of my life. Thankfully no one told me that change is hard as the news spread among my family and friends.

Instead, I was often given reassurances that were useful, "I'll drive you to your appointments", and not-so-useful, "Oh, my grandmother died because of that chemo", and was mostly left to my own devices to figure out exactly how I was going to adapt to this huge, monstrous gash in the fabric of my life.

I think about this time a lot right now because life within the COVID-19 pandemic brings out many memories of that intense uncertainty and fear. The moment I heard my diagnosis I had the sensation that life was abruptly too hard to face and that the risks of making the wrong choice were so large that there wasn't even a bit of comfort in deciding on a path and taking those first steps.

It's reminded me, as well, of the many times since then when I've met someone very newly diagnosed with metastatic cancer and I'll say that they'll feel better once they have a plan.

But that only works if you believe in the plan.

I suppose that's why I remember the times when change was forced on me before I had a chance to really understand the problem— never mind the plan. This includes that stretched-out-in-time moment when the words "Stage four" spread like a thick black cloud from my doctor's mouth and enveloped me, reaching into my heart and mind, staying there for days when all I could do was cry by myself.

It's hard to believe in the plan when you have little control in either the problem or the path. Cancer and COVID-19 are similar in the respect too. I was thrown into cancer and maybe you were too. Thrown in, tumbled around, and then set back down in a different world. Not a "new normal" world - an entirely different world where uncertainty and change were the underpinnings, at least for a while.

For me, the ways to live with massive change is to listen well and to find connections with others. It is possible to find a way forward, even when there are tunnels and cliffs and too much pain.

Change is hard. The unknown and unknowable are features of cancer and, so far, COVID-19. Right now, for me, leaning in to the potential for transformation brings the most comfort. I can try all I want to get back to the old world, to stop anything more from changing, but I won't be successful. Better to acknowledge the losses, and there are plenty to choose from, feel all the emotions, and be clear-eyed as I look ahead.