Why Cancer is Better Than New Year’s Resolutions

(This is a “classic” post that originally ran last year.) First off, let me state for the record that I didn’t make any resolutions when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And I got over making New Year’s resolutions years ago, once I finally figured out I was paving a pretty sizable road with them. It’s the one time of year we’re all like little kids, convincing ourselves that what we feel at this golden inspired moment will last forever and ever.

So what does cancer have to do with New Year’s? Plenty, as it turns out. Both of them remind you of your mortality and the passage of time. Both offer opportunities for fresh starts. But because cancer has a way of putting you on notice, it’s much better at effecting results. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been changed by her experience in some way. That doesn’t mean any of us have vowed to hit the gym six days a week or swear off French fries because of our cancer adventure. Cancer isn’t any more magical in that regard than New Year’s Eve.  

But I know from my own experience that you let go of something. My friend and hairdresser told me last fall that I’ve changed; she could see it in my face. And I know what she meant. I remember feeling inexplicably happy while I was driving to work one day in the middle of my cancer adventure, and I couldn’t come up with a reason—except maybe that it was good to be alive and driving to work. The birds were chirping and the sun was shining and I suddenly felt like a character in a Disney movie. I realized it doesn’t take more than that for life to be good. I talked to a friend who noticed something similar in a breast cancer survivor she worked with. Things that used to get her bent out of shape had lost their power over her.

I’ve read that one of the keys to keeping your New Year’s resolutions is to make your goals realistic. Maybe that’s why cancer is so good at helping you let go of life’s little annoyances while appreciating its pleasures. It’s the biggest reality check I know.

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Blessings

One of the things I love best about Christmas is that so many of its joys are simple ones. I love the music and lights. I love the rituals, which for me include decorating, baking and watching old Christmas movies and A Charlie Brown Christmas.

The childhood anticipation and sense of wonder remain; only now they’re less about gifts and more about time with family and friends. Time with the ones we love is the biggest blessing of Christmas.

When we can no longer have them with us, we’re blessed with memories of them. As you get older, you’ll start counting on more such memories to sustain you during the holidays. My mom and dad are both gone, as are my husband Bruce’s dad, Duane, and his older brother, Brad. Brad gave the best Christmas gifts of anyone I’ve ever known before or since. Duane made divinity every year. Like everyone, a lot of our holiday rituals and memories are tied up with food.

Every year when I bake my spritz Christmas trees I think of my mom. She baked 20 different types of cookies every year and gave them as Christmas gifts. She had a separate freezer just for them, and it was strictly off-limits to my brother and me. It was a proud day when she put me in charge of the chocolate chip cookies. I still have a copy of her cookie list, in her handwriting. It’s one of my most treasured possessions, along with the Christmas stockings she knitted for Bruce and me shortly after we were married.

Memories also live in the ornaments we haul out every year. My mom’s crocheted snowflakes, candy canes, angels and trees have places of honor on the tree. The goofy-looking clothespin reindeer won’t win any decor awards, but the memory of purchasing it for 50 cents at a Pensacola craft fair when we were young and lived paycheck to paycheck  is as warming as a cup of cocoa. So is the lantern stuffed with angel hair from Bruce’s childhood. It’s an accidental collectible, now that angel hair (spun glass) is extinct in the U.S. It used to be part of every grade-school Christmas display.

The ability to find joy in the small things is an underrated blessing at Christmas or any other time. Roy L. Smith said, “He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree.” I think happiness is much the same. If you chase it, it will outrun you every time. If you don’t obsess over how much you have or how to get it, it will find you.

Here’s wishing you all the blessings of the season.

Yes, Virginia, You Need A 2nd Opinion

(This is a “dispatch from the past” that originally ran last year. -Jackie Fox) When you’re diagnosed with cancer, certain things have become accepted practice. One is that you take someone to appointments with you because you’ll be too jacked up to process what the doctor says. Another is that you get a second opinion.

While I can vouch for both, I want to focus on the second opinion. I won’t go into all the reasons why it’s a good idea; you can find those through any number of resources. I want to explain why it made sense for me.

I assumed I’d get a second opinion when it was time to talk to an oncologist about treatment. But once I did, getting a second opinion felt urgent, because I didn’t like the recommendation or the way it was delivered.

I should back up the truck and explain that I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, a very early stage cancer that is not invasive, although it can become invasive if not treated. It’s often successfully treated with a combination of breast-conserving surgery and radiation. I assumed I would be on this path until two surgeries didn’t get the desired results. Oncologist No. 1, after taking a family history, said, “I know you don’t want to hear this but I think you need a mastectomy.” I’ll spare you the details but the conversation went downhill from there. I felt like I had been sucker-punched.

On to the second opinion, who became my oncologist. The difference was night and day. The first doctor spent 20 minutes and was direct to the point of being blunt. The second one spent an hour and 20 minutes and said I had options, which was exactly what I needed to hear. He ended up making the same recommendation as the first doctor, but told me he would support me if I opted for radiation and surveillance. I chose the mastectomy and have no regrets.

An important thing to remember about second opinions is that even though their recommendations may be the same, you may find one doctor’s style suits you much better than another’s. You will spend a lot of time with him or her and you need to be comfortable. So get that second opinion and don’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings. It’s your body, your life, and your choice.

Modesty and Breast Cancer

Once you get past the shock of learning you have breast cancer, the realization that quite a few people will be viewing a rather personal part of your anatomy begins to sink in. This is not welcome news for those of us who tend to be physically modest, that is, most of us.

Pelvic exams  are still No. 1 on my list of Least Dignified Procedures, but I’m lucky there because I’ve seen my doctor for something like 17 or 18 years. I’ve reached the point where I can chat with him and his nurse about Husker football while his hand is, shall we say, occupied.

Whenever I’m in that goofy robe (or the paper “lobster bib” my general surgeon favors) I tell myself it’s just another day at the office for them. Meaning I’m not showing them anything they haven’t seen before, so I’ll pretend I’m as relaxed as they are. That usually helps.

I also lean on humor when I’m stressed, and I often remember the beyond-brilliant Richard Pryor’s riff on physical modesty. He talked about the indignity of handing over a urine sample and how if any of us civilians were collecting it we’d enter in hazmat suits like we were defusing a bomb. He compared that to health workers zooming in and saying “Is this your p*ss? Thank you!” and snatching it like a cup of coffee.

I’ve gotten used to the general indignities of medical procedures, including mammograms, as I’ve gotten older. The facility where I get mine only uses female technicians, and I think that helps. If your facility doesn’t, you are certainly within your rights to ask for one.

But in spite of all this, whipping the girls out for inspection at least once and sometimes twice a week while I was treated for breast cancer definitely took some getting used to. And my comfort window, if you can call it that, was initially pretty narrow.

I had gotten used to having my left (bad) breast inspected. But after our second attempt at breast-conserving surgery, my surgeon looked at the right one. He had never done this before and I was startled enough to ask him why. He replied for symmetry, which made total sense but I was momentarily ready to leap off the examining table. I eventually did get used to it, but there were times I really wished something was wrong with my arm or leg.

I guess my point with all this is that if you’re modest, know you’re not alone and that you can get through it. I like to tell my family doctor that no one ever died of embarrassment, but that’s not strictly true. If you’re too shy to get a screening exam that could save your life, it’s entirely possible.

Take a friend with you. Tell yourself it will be over soon, and remind yourself that medical professionals are here to help you, not shame you. In my experience, shame is self-inflicted and like fear and doubt, we’re our own worst enemies. Don’t give in. Do whatever it takes to get through that screening, but don’t avoid it. You just might save your life.