Advice to the newly diagnosed
Recently, I had a close friend who was diagnosed with cancer. This was actually a first for me. This is a real life friend who has cancer – like, not a friend who I met on social media after my diagnosis. I have plenty of friends who have fought cancer, I just haven’t met 99.9% of them!
(Side note: My social media cancer friends — can we all get a cancer conference together? Or maybe we all just meet in one city and go out for a weekend where we drink cocktails and look hot AF and show the world that cancer doesn’t have shit on us?!? Seriously, I think this needs to happen.) (Update–We’re also burning our wigs in a giant bon fire.)
Back to the main topic – I told my friend “welcome to the club!” because he’s now my cancer buddy! Also, he’s the same age as me so he’s joining the young cancer club which is an elite few 🙂
So we pow-wowed a bit and talked about cancer. He told me that his diagnosis was very eye opening, because before it happens to you personally, you kind of tend to make broad generalizations about cancer. When I say personally, I mean either YOU have cancer or your close family/friend does. And when I say “broad generalizations” I mean that most people don’t know jack shit about cancer. The unknown is what causes panic, fear, anxiety. The panic causes us to Google. The googling causes us to panic more.
So in light of our realization that most people don’t know shit about what it’s like to have cancer, I wanted to share a few things. For the newly diagnosed (whether it’s you, a friend, or family member) 7 little tidbits of advice and what to expect — because I wish that I had somebody who told me these things.
- First of all, when you’re first diagnosed you’re fucking scared. (Duh, you know that) You basically start planning your own funeral.
I want everybody to wear white, not black, drink vodka sodas, eat Royal Farms chicken, and have Elton John play Tiny Dancer. Oh, and blast my ashes into outer space in a pink sparkley rocket.
As cool as your funeral plans may be, just stop it. You probably went on the internet and found the worst-of-the-worst cancer diagnosis scenario and are now convinced that you’re going to die. Stop it. Step away from the Google machine. Questions? Call a doctor, not WebMD. The internet is not your friend; the internet is the boy in 2nd grade who stole your Lunchable.
- Secondly, Cancer is (usually) more emotionally taxing on your loved ones than it is on you. Why? Because YOU (as the cancer patient) know that you’re inherently going to be fine. Sure you will freak out at first, but eventually, after you have sat with the doctors, after you know what a PET scan is, you know what your options are. You already threw those imaginary funeral plans in the invisible trash because – guess what— today more people are living from cancer than dying. But most people don’t really seem to grasp that. Especially your crazy [insert emotionally unstable relative here] who is so completely incapacitated with worrying about you that you find yourself always calming them. HELLO?!… This crazy relative doesn’t have cancer, but that doesn’t stop them from hyperventilating in Home Goods because they found napkins with pink breast cancer ribbons on them.
So the neurotic relatives are one thing — but whoever your caretaker is during this time (husband/wife/mom/etc) — be extra nice to them. It’s the hardest on these people. They may not be the ones that are sick, but they see you at your worst. The burden that they carry as your lifeline during your darkest hour is heavier than they are ever obligated to endure. It’s an emotional crusade to stay strong, to be the rock, to tell white lies to family when they ask how you’re doing (Doing great!). When really… you spent the past two nights throwing up like you did in your high school/college party days after you drank enough “jungle juice” to drown an elephant. The caretakers are our unsung heroes.
- Third, prepare for a shitstorm of questions. You’re going to get questions and comments from anybody and everybody you’ve ever met (like that annoying girl you sat next to in freshman Poly Sci who now has enough babies to start her own little league team), and they are going to be so stupid/invasive/absurd that you’re going to whisper to yourself “whatttt the fuuucck” more times than you can count. Because they will ask things like: “Oh, so I guess now you can’t really have kids, because you can’t breastfeed right?” I’m not sure this person knows how a baby is born. Perhaps an anatomy lesson is due. “So what does cancer FEEL like? You could feel it right? It hurts?” If I could feel cancer… I would have been diagnosed a lot sooner, ya genius. I had a tumor, and yes I could feel that, but cancer doesn’t really have a feeling. Its symptoms are rarely noticeable which is why it goes undiagnosed in most people. “Oh you’re not going to die, the prognosis is good, right?” Just… never, ever ask a cancer patient about their life expectancy unless you are a doctor. Well, even if you are a doctor, you’re still running a high chance of getting crane kicked in the face because nobody wants to talk about an appraisal of their time left on Earth like we’re chit chatting about sports statistics. If they aren’t talking about it, don’t ask about it. Don’t mention dying. Ever.
So like I said earlier… please understand that most people are just misinformed, not malicious. Think about it… before your diagnosis, did you know that there were different combinations of chemo? Did you know that not everybody needs chemo, and that not every type of chemo makes your hair fall out? Did you even know what radiation is?
I admit. I didn’t know any of this. In my stupid brain I thought that people who got cancer usually died, or else it must not have been that bad. I thought that there were “good kinds of cancer” that were easy and similar to getting a virus treated with a Z-pack. I thought that people got cancer as a result of living an unhealthy lifestyle. Wrong Wrong Wrong.
- Fourth — know that no matter what kind of cancer you have/had… the psychological effects remain the same whether its stage 1 or 5. Maybe you had stage 1 and the cancer was removed with minor surgery and no further treatment. Maybe you had stage 4 and cancer riddled your bones and the crevices of your insides. The self loathing and guilt that comes with a cancer diagnosis can be crippling. It fucks with your mind. Why did this happen to me? Was it because I [insert any bad vice/behavior here]? Did I cause this? Too much bacon? Not enough green tea?
You will constantly ask yourself “Will it come back again?” With a cancer diagnosis, you also get the pleasure of the grim fucking reaper snagging a permeant home in your subconscious. This grim reaper visits in seasonal times. He’s lounging next to you at the pool or standing across from you at the bar waving — as a friendly reminder that you could die. “Howdy ho neighbor! Just here to ruin your day!”
The fear of cancer returning. The anxiety of it recklessly colonizing and disabling your body in an unexpected homecoming. It’s a paralyzing thought that can hit you at startling moments. Death stalks you.
- You don’t have to tell everybody. Refer to point 3. It’s up to you. I thought I had to tell everybody. You don’t, and not everybody needs to know you have cancer.
- Time will fly during this scary period in your life. Which is good. It’s not one of those times you really want to “stop and take in the moment” like they tell you at your wedding. Your diagnosis will be a flurry of appointments and treatments. You’re constantly looking towards the next date on the calendar, next doctor, next chemo, next follow up. Before you know it you’re sitting here 1.5 years later with actual hair on your head, eyelashes, and new boobs. If you had chemo like I did, you’ll probably not remember a lot of the specifics during the hectic times (chemo brain – see previous post). The memories will float in your brain like a clouded drunk memory. Pretty neat-o!
- You’re going to be okay. Cancer taught me that even if I do…die…someday from cancer… that will be ok too. I’m not afraid to die. It will make you brave in weird ways you can’t understand. It makes your family brave. It makes relationships stronger. It makes your faith stronger. You’re going to be fucking fine! Calm your tits.
If you’re newly diagnosed, or just have questions feel free to ask me. I have plenty more unsolicited advice! Even if your questions are weird and hopefully just mildly offensive that’s fine too. I want to educate people. There are too many things that we don’t ask or don’t say to each other because we’re afraid or embarrassed. Get over it, talk about it. Put an end to this stigma that cancer is a death sentence or that it’s contagious (oh yeah, forgot to mention I’ve heard that question too).
Be nice to each other, stay healthy. Ciao betches.