Cancer Diagnosis: No Chirps, Please

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The outer trip to the oncologist’s office takes about fifteen minutes from my house. The inner journey, which has been going on for twenty-four years, continues. One can be in remission from leukemia, but there’s no knowing for how long. It can return, seemingly from one day to the next, with no warning except perhaps for unusual fatigue and weird sweating. I’ve learned to live with the uncertainty of remission by telling myself, “For the moment, all is well.”

Since being diagnosed with cancer I’ve gotten a lot of advice, most of it unasked for. Much of it makes me want to scream, or worse. I have been told: “Cancer is a gift.” “You have to have a positive attitude or you won’t get well.” “You’ve always taken such good care of yourself, how can you have cancer?” “If you dwell on the dark side you’re going to make yourself even more sick.” “What have you done to bring this on yourself?” “You’re lucky, they have medicine for the kind of leukemia you have.” It took me a long time to realize that most of their comments are fueled by their fear. Perhaps they think that acknowledging and facing the dark side of life is a trip from which there is no return. In my experience, it’s about discovering a healthy inner balance. I could not find my way back to life and light until I dealt with the dark side. It’s a scary journey but a return ticket is not only possible, it helps to create one’s new life.

Reading about people with cancer makes me wonder why it is that only positive thoughts are allowed. Almost always, the person highlighted has an upbeat attitude, never feels down, never acknowledges the darkness, and never admits wanting to give up. It’s almost as if the person is a candidate for sainthood, as if the article has been written in chirps rather than words. After reading one too many of these articles I began to think there was something wrong with me. I hated the fatigue, the inability to live life on my terms. I was sure there was something wrong with me when I found myself yearning to be strong enough to take out the garbage. It took months of accepting the inner deadness, despair, and the feeling that my body had betrayed me, before these feelings began to give way to the sense that there was now a before and an after, that my life would never be what it was, but what it could be was worth exploring.

All of this makes a sense of humor an important part of dealing with the cancer journey. When my long, straight blonde hair fell out and it grew back dark and curly, while sitting in the waiting room I asked the group, “Okay, who got my hair?” A woman without hair laughed and said, “Maybe it’ll be me. I’d trade you my mousy brown hair for dark and curly any day.” A bald headed man grinned. “I lost all my hair years ago. I’d settle for hair—don’t care what color or kind.” While part of one experimental protocol I was required to visit a National Cancer Center every month. Each time patients had to wait hours for their new batch of medicine. I am not good at waiting, especially when I think a system is inefficient. I grumpily voiced my opinion, more than once. When told to be patient, I retorted, “I’m not a patient, I’m an impatient.” The nurses laughed and when it was my turn to be called, I heard a chuckling voice call out, “Impatient King.” The people in the waiting room gave me the thumbs up sign, encouraging me to keep protesting. With their support I managed to change the system and from then on we didn’t have to wait as long for our medicine.

So, here’s a bit of unasked for advice. If you meet someone traveling through life with cancer or any other catastrophic illness, and you don’t know what to say, try asking, “What’s it like for you?” You can’t know how they feel or what it’s like to be given a life-threatening diagnosis. Just be there for them as best you can. That’s more than good enough.

Nancy King's book Morning Light deals with some of the issues that arise when dealing with a catastrophic illness. You can read the first pages of her novels: A Woman Walking, Morning Light, and The Stones Speak. on her website: www.nancykingstories.com. Her books can be purchased from her website or ordered by local bookstores. 

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