Cancer is an enormous blow to your life. Short of death, there are so many different and devastating ways cancer can turn you from someone who’s fit, healthy, and happy, to a person who’s in pain, overweight, weak, and discouraged.
But there’s one virtue you should grab and hold onto early in the journey:
They say it’s a virtue, something to aspire to. But it can also be oh-so-elusive, especially when you’ve been through months and months of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, drugs, and pain — the typical tortuous slog through cancer treatment.
At last, you finish the everyday visit to the hospital’s radiology department. Or you get that final biologic injection. Or you shake the remaining little tamoxifen pill out of the bottle, five years after you filled your first prescription.
Done! OK, I’m going to feel better now.
Only you don’t. Not today, not tomorrow, not after a week. Or two weeks.
You start to wonder: If I don’t feel any different, was the treatment actually doing anything? And if it was, and it’s over — why don’t I feel better?
The fact is, many of the medical interventions you’ve had are very serious, and a major assault to your body.
Cancer treatment continues to improve — if not by leaps and bounds, at least by steady, small steps. But we’re still in the era of slash, poison, and burn. It’s a shotgun approach of surgery and chemotherapy and radiation, where doctor use every weapon in their arsenal — instead of just a precisely focused tool — to kill those cancer cells.
And this all-out war on cancer leaves plenty of casualties on both sides. Your cancer cells die; and the collateral damage to the rest of you is enormous.
They say that with major surgery, for every hour you’re under general anesthesia, it takes a day to get over it. And cancer treatment is similar. Chemotherapy drugs are injected into your bloodstream, which means they reach every cell in your body. Hormone drugs are ingested, and yes, they reach your bloodstream, too.
Radiation, though it may seem focused and topical, spreads like ripples from a stone dropped into a still pond. Ask a woman who’s had breast radiation to show you the burns under her arm; or describe the massive fatigue she feels every afternoon.
The point is, you’re not going to recover from cancer treatment quickly — especially if you’ve had the full complement of therapies. And the older you are, the tougher it is, and the slower it goes — like so many things in your life.
January is a time for resolutions. You know, “I’m going to lose weight this year, I really am.” And, “I’m joining a gym. I need to exercise.” Many of us have made similar resolutions each January for years, only to look at ourselves in April and realize those goals have disappeared just as completely as the snow in the backyard.
The reason we lose our resolve so quickly is perceived lack of progress. We start out strong, but after a week or two, or a month, we see no change. Or not enough, when we balance pain versus gain. (And if you’re simply waiting to feel better, without making any proactive effort to help your body along, the road back to health is even longer.)
We’re still sore, still overweight despite the loss of a few pounds, and just not feeling up to snuff. So we give in; we quit exercising, don’t count calories, stop taking a daily walk. We cease to fight — and start to see ourselves as cancer victims, rather than cancer conquerors. And once you see yourself as a powerless victim, you become one.
You are not powerless.
If there’s one thing you can control during your cancer experience, it’s your attitude. Yes, it’s been a tough journey. But it’s not over — and probably won’t be for awhile, possibly for years. Accept that fact; live with it. And vow to cultivate the patience you need to deal with the long road back to good health.
This January, as you make those inevitable resolutions to eat more vegetables and bicycle to work once a week, add two simple words to the end of your list: Be patient. Time heals — it really does. It’s our impatience, not the measured passage of time, that makes the healing process feel so slow.
Mark your progress not day to day but month to month and year to year. Start your healthy diet today; go for a brisk walk. Do it again tomorrow. And the day after that. When you feel discouraged, as you inevitably will, don’t give up; take a deep breath, put one foot in front of the other, and move forward.
Whatever your goals this year, patience — teamed with a healthy dose of willpower — will get you there. Happy New Year!
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PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.