When we have won the medical battle, we find there is another front to fight.
Sometimes when we think that we have won the fight we can find that there are lingering sneak attacks of our own doing that can make us think that we may never truly finish the fight. In this instance, the enemy I speak of is not necessarily the illness or the cancer but the more difficult mental challenges that never seem to truly go away.
Let’s see, you have endured months of treatments that may include heavy medications, chemotherapy, radiation, surgical procedures, relapses, more medication, the effects of the medications, and more surgery. This is the thick of the battle – fighting to get through it. Seeing the physical toll it may take on your body. But then later, you hopefully recover from the physical effects. The body is miraculous in that most of the time, more time passes and you rid your body of the effects of the medication, you recover your strength and your ability to function – even returning to a normal for you that incorporates the old normal because you realize that you are truly now living in a new normal.
For a lot of people, mentally it is difficult to rid yourself completely of the fears and thoughts that you felt when you were in the thick of it. For example, when I recovered physically from my surgery related to lung cancer, I rejoiced at being truly blessed to have made the journey successfully. It took weeks of rebuilding my lung capacity to compensate for that which was no longer there. It went from hardly being able to breath while walking across the room to going down stairs to walking to the corner. Each day was a new victory and that much brighter for it. But as each cancer patient knows, you hold your breath until the final reports are in and you hear the words that all is clear. Only then do you exhale. Even then you still know that there is a follow-up scan to come once, twice or several times a year. That means for the period immediately preceding it, you try to put it out of your mind and live your new normal as if it were of no concern. The day approaches and you hold your breath all over again and hope to be able to exhale in relief when you can again hear the words that you are all clear for another year. After a number of years, you could be deemed to be cancer free – hallelujah! But wait, that can also instill a new fear that, if no one is watching me, taking scans at regular intervals, how will I know?
There can also be a certain amount of guilt associated with surviving cancer. I know it sounds strange. In my case, I feel so very thankful, blessed, and the happiest I have ever been in my life. But when you see the faces of those around you – those you know and those you don’t know, young and old, friends, colleagues and even strangers – who are suffering, who have died or lost loved ones to cancer, you cannot help but wonder why me? Understand the question is never why me in terms of why did I get cancer but why me in terms of why was I the one whose cancer was found early enough to cure, why was I the one who did not need to have any treatments beyond the surgery – no chemotherapy, no radiation?
I think it can be summed up in this way. I was watching the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” At the very end of the movie, the character Private James Ryan (the younger version of whom was played by Matt Damon in the movie) is now an elderly man visiting Normandy for the first time to pay homage to the graves of the men who died to save his life so that his family did not lose all four sons to the war. He was overcome with emotion when he recalled the dying words of Captain Miller, Tom Hanks’ character, when he said to him “James – earn this.” With his eyes filled with tears, he turned to his daughter and asked if he had led a good life, been a good man, to which she replied that he had.
We must always honor others who have faced this same challenge.
To pay honor to those who have not survived the fight to survive cancer or are engaged in the fight of their lives which may last for months, it is important that I and others like me who have survived, earn this – make a difference in some way so that our community, our world, is a little better for us having remained in it. With that as my focus, the fear and anxiety disappears. I no longer wait for the “bad news” to come. You cannot truly live a meaningful life if you live in uncertainty and fear. We need to release it – focus on what we can do to make a difference and be happy with this life that we have. The journey we continue must affect the lives of those around us and support and uplift those who need us most. Doing that we can say we earned it and we are blessed.