Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
How one cancer thriver has found a small corner of control in an uncontrollable place.
Living with cancer is a mind game. There are times when I “win” — those days when treatment is just a fact of my life — and there are days when I “lose” to anxiety, sadness, and loss that has already happened and the anticipation of losses to come.
During this life with cancer, there have been years lived under the shadow of a kind of superstition. By talking about how fortunate I’ve been in my response, thoughts of bringing down bad luck would flit across the back of my mind. When I mention that I have had a tremendously good response to my first line of treatment, Taxol for six months and then only Herceptin and Perjeta, I’ll sometimes call myself lucky just because I want to acknowledge the seemingly random nature of whose cancer responds well to the offered drugs and whose does not.
I fell into a trap that if I did anything differently, even the most innocuous change in behavior, I simply would not continue to have the same level of success with my treatment, that I wouldn’t feel energetic enough to be an active part of my kids’ lives or, really, my own life. I wanted protection from the randomness of cancer.
I would be careful to select from the same small pile of clothing for treatment days, scan days, and oncologist-appointment days. After treatment, I would make a stop at the store and buy the same food item (an expensive pint of ice cream) to comfort myself even on days when ice cream was the last thing I wanted.
Over time, that small pile of superstition-approved clothing grew a little bigger as it became impossible to keep wearing the same shirt or pair of socks that were somehow knit together with my good scan results.
I started thinking more about why I found comfort in these habits and superstitions. I realized, somewhat late to the game, that it wasn’t superstition as much as it was creating rituals within this different life that I had found myself in. I thought back to the time when a friend brought me to a service at her beautiful Manhattan Catholic church. I didn’t understand most of what was going on in the service, but I appreciated the traditions that provided shape and meaning for my friend and the rituals that brought her back to more familiar footing even if just for a few hours.
In that memory, I realized that what I was doing with my superstitious use of clothing and food was actually creating rituals for myself in an unfamiliar land.
It’s so much easier to live with rituals in life with cancer, instead of superstitions, because it frees me from the unwelcome feeling that inconsequential choices — like which shoes I put on — have an impact on how I respond to treatment.
Instead of protection, rituals provide structure and a sense of control, however minor, which are two sorely needed qualities in an uncontrollable situation. They can be dogmatic, like those I observed at my friend’s church, or they can be fluid and flexible, which is how I have adapted mine. Superstitious protection may cross my mind as I choose what to wear on a scan day, but I consciously turn that around to consider how rituals and habits help me move through high-anxiety times. I think about how it’s OK to have something you “always” do and also believe it’s equally OK to not do it and choose something else, like a bike ride over that ice cream.