Danielle Ripley-Burgess is a two-time colon cancer survivor first diagnosed at age 17, an award-winning communications professional and the author of Blush: How I barely survived 17. She writes and speaks to encourage others that faith can survive. Also, she bakes a really good chocolate chip cookie. Follow her blog at DanielleRipleyBurgess.com or connect on social media at @DanielleisB.
Multitasking isn't an exact science and its ok, often better, to take things one at a time on the cancer journey.
Recently, I watched a show on the science of multitasking. (It’s amazing what entertains me during COVID-19 lockdown.) In the episode, a confident businessman was put to the test. He assumed he’d ace the exercises since juggling a successful company demanded he work on many things at once. Yet after we watched him field challenging questions while steering a car along a difficult course, it showed he’s no multitasking superhero. His scores were average, and they showed what many of us struggle to accept: It’s really difficult for our brains to multitask well, and when we do, something doesn’t get our full attention.
The show on multitasking made me think of something else I’ve found difficult to balance—fighting cancer.
During the six months following my colon cancer diagnosis, the physical fight was the most critical. Keeping my heart beating and my organs free of cancer was the top priority. “Survival mode” meant putting my body into scary tubes, having endless needles poked into my arms and enduring embarrassing exams. Yet despite the pain and discomfort, something deep inside of me endured every uncomfortable situation because they were parts of the physical fight.
A few weeks after I got the “all clear” and was set loose—no more chemo or radiation, and great follow-up scans—something unexpected happened. I didn’t feel joy like I expected, I felt angry. Scared. Frustrated. It was really confusing. As the days and months wore on, I found myself still fighting cancer. My physical fight had eased up, but I was facing an intense battle in my heart and mind. “Survival mode” changed as I learned cancer affected me mentally, emotionally and spiritually too.
Amazing strides are now being taken to help patients and caregivers face the many complexities of cancer —the challenges that lie outside the obvious physical ones. But I think it’s important to note that addressing all aspects of cancer is challenging. It’s very difficult to give 100 percent of yourself to facing it physically and dive deep into mental health at the same time.
You may find yourself in the middle of a strenuous physical fight today and unable to authentically answer, “How are you?” or know how to apply your faith. That’s OK, and it’s normal. Or, you may be years out from your diagnosis like me, facing fewer physical struggles, and yet you still encounter negative thoughts, fear and grief because of your cancer experience.
That’s normal too. It’s common to ride a proverbial see-saw of sorts—when one aspect of cancer eases up, another gets more challenging. We must remember: It’s hard to multitask in everyday life; cancer doesn’t make it easier.
The businessman didn’t ace his multitasking test, but he did answer the questions and keep the car on the road. He balanced several things at once and when the car stopped, he could then focus and give his full attention. I don’t know about you, but I find that encouraging. Some days, we will need to address many aspects of cancer at once. But other days, we’ll be off the hook. And when those days come, we must alleviate the pressure we can put on ourselves. It’s OK to take it one thing at a time.