Poker Face or Cancer Card?


Before I was diagnosed, I had my share of illnesses, but none that slowed me down like cancer could.

Before I was diagnosed, I had my share of illnesses. Fortunately, many of them were the routine stuff that most people tend to get from time to time, and most did not stop me getting on with whatever needed doing. I served in the military from age 16 until 45 — a long time! On only two occasions during that 29-year period, did I involuntary visit a hospital: aged 16 having been knocked out at boxing (you should have seen the other guy!) and aged 39 after falling off a vehicle (in my defense it was really dark). Illness wasn't really something I thought much about and for minor things, I would just "soldier on.” So, from an early age, I truly believed a “poker face” was necessary for “street cred” but I guess that was ingrained in the military mindset.

Even out of the military environment, old habits die hard as I adopted the same attitude. The “mission” comes first and my health second. A few “civilians” once suggested I go home after coughing, sniffing and sneezing my way through a day in the office. I responded in the only way I knew by saying I would only be leaving the office early on a stretcher having lost consciousness. To get them off my back, I made sure there was no hint of banter or joviality in the statement. This tactic didn't really work and they laughed at something they perceived as a joke. However, little did they know, I was deadly serious. Little did I know, my gung-ho attitude and poker face were to become seriously deadly.

In 2010, along came cancer. For a couple of years before diagnosis, I had not been sufficiently focused on my health and soldiered on, ignoring what I now know to be key symptoms of neuroendocrine cancer. Even leading up to diagnosis, I was dismissive, refusing to acknowledge this was a threat. Other people get cancer, but not me! I even landed in the hospital via the ER as I refused to slow down after a biopsy. Still in denial, I thought I could beat cancer not knowing that cancer knew with 100 percent certainty that it could beat me. I went on to have surgery and other treatments, but apart from that, I basically marched on as if nothing had happened. However, as the effects of cancer and the consequences of the treatment started to bite, I accelerated my learning on how the disease might affect me in the future. This knowledge has enabled me to manage risk and make better assessment/decisions about seeking help. But it took a while, and gradually over a period of three years, I shifted the focus from work to health.

It's not been easy to learn how to live with my incurable disease since diagnosis. Finding a balance between how I want to live and how to stay alive has been difficult. My “stiff upper lip” combined with an appetite for work didn't really help in the end. In 2013 (three years after diagnosis), I finally found the time to work on the reasons for fatigue and many other symptoms. I made some really good improvements to my quality of life. I still have issues, but my cards are no longer close to my chest — they're now more frequently on the table, particularly when speaking to doctors and close family. My poker face is still there for special occasions, just more relaxed!

"It's the cancer," can sometimes be the most convenient excuse to not do stuff. I can play the “cancer card” as well as the next person, and it will trump all others! I also understand that motivation can be difficult with a chronic illness. However, I don't want to fall into the trap of doing nothing all the time. That’s not a good outcome. Consequently, I try not to use the metaphorical cancer card too much. In fact, I sometimes even say "I can" when I actually feel like playing the cancer card. I'm nearly always glad I did.

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