Now that 2014 is nearly half gone, I find myself reflecting on the past year. I can recall so many memorable moments! I’ve learned to reflect on my past, but not dwell there, to L.I.V.E in the present to the fullest, and to hope in my future with joy.
One such moment I can recall was the first time John Shinar, a man who walked in all 14 Susan G. Komen 3-Day events in 2013, shared his reasons for why he walks. At the top of his list was his beautiful wife of 30 years, who died from complications of breast cancer after a 20-year survivorship. I held up well through the first half of his presentation; then I completely lost it, like out of nowhere! You know, one of those “ugly” cries where your chest heaves? Yep, that was me. In a split second, I had put myself in Martha’s shoes.
When your treatment is as lengthy and disruptive as mine was, many survivors experience some difficulty in returning to normal daily life. The energy needed to cope with a rigorous treatment program may have caused them to disconnect from previous daily patterns, such as working, normal self-care, and housekeeping. A small number of survivors become dependent on the attention and sympathy that they received during their treatment and feel neglected when life returns to normal. Me and Martha weren’t in that number. As a matter of fact, we came out of treatment running to redeem any time stolen from us because of this disease and we insisted that life wasn’t simply going to be “business as usual” but rather “better than before.”
There are tremendous implications that cancer has on the relationships that survivors have with their loved ones (particularly their partners) once their cancer has been treated, and social support plays a critical role in their long-term emotional adjustment. Hearing John share his story from the perspective of a co-survivor caused me to reflect on the co-survivors in my life. I thought about the pain, fear and uncertainty they must have felt and possibly still feel to this day. Some survivors, even if the cancer has been permanently cured, struggle emotionally from the trauma of having experienced a life-threatening disease. And guess what? Our co-survivors struggle emotionally right along with us. Maybe not to the degree or quite in the same way as we do, but their struggle is nonetheless very real. The diagnosis of a life-threatening illness for a family member creates fear of losing the loved one and concern about the suffering he or she will endure.
As he spoke, I remembered learning in medical school that chronic illness can bring about guilt, feelings of loss of control, anger, sadness, confusion and fear and as quickly as I remembered I realized that I had experienced all of these. I can tell you from experience, both personally and professionally, that survivors may also experience more generalized worry, fear for the future, inability to make plans, uncertainty and a heightened sense of vulnerability. So when John said that Martha would force them to make plans and right them down every New Year’s, I thought to myself, here was a woman after my own heart. A woman who knew that when you put pen to paper, that is a step of creation and you have translated your desire into a physical reality.
As I listened to John, I heard his love, his pain, his adoration, his pride and his loss. It was clear that he would always love Martha although his heart was open to new beginnings. It was evident that their children loved, respected and missed their mother. I guess when I “lost it” I was thinking, “When it’s my time to transcend from this life to the next, will I have someone who loves me like he loved her? Will my children reflect my spirit, vision and zest for life? And will I leave behind a legacy worth remembering and telling others about?” His words confirmed that there is still work for me to do, that there are people in this world with buckets full of love ready to be dumped upon me daily, and that this is my time to explore, grow and L.I.V.E out all the possibilities that life has designed just for me.
Please remember that as the breast cancer patient reacts, so do the people around them: their boss, their children, their friends and neighbors. Sure, it’s important to embrace whatever emotions and feelings you have at that time. But it’s vital you also consider how the person who has received the diagnosis feels. Can you put yourself in their shoes? Incomprehensible. Imagine how they’re feeling? Unimaginable. However, while you may not be able to fully understand their unique position, one thing’s for sure: they need your support. By reaching out to someone who is battling any life-threatening illness, you’re providing them with much-needed help. It can help reduce their anxiety and depression. Your support can help improve their mood, self-image, coping ability and feelings of “not being in control.” Your support can make all the difference.