Lessons From The Cancer Road

I can state, unequivocally, that the process of learning these lessons has transformed my own life.
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A friend suggested that I blog in response to the following question:

If you had three pieces of advice to share from your journey with cancer, which you hope would profoundly affect generations to come, what would they be?

I can’t make any claims regarding the potential effect of my lessons learned on future generations, but I can state, unequivocally, that the process of learning these lessons has transformed my own life. And I know that many of those closest to me have been directly affected as well, either as a teacher or co-learner of these lessons — often both. So, here goes:

Lesson/advice #1: Accept help from others with grace and gratitude.

Oh, readers. This is so much easier said than done. When you’re 27, and you’re just starting your career, and you don’t live with your parents — or even in the same state as your parents — and you finally have a tiny bit of disposable income after you pay for your crazy-expensive Los Angeles apartment, your car, your student loans, and some groceries, the.very.last.thing you want to do is accept help of any kind.

I remember clinging so fiercely to my independence in the early days following my diagnosis with a brain tumor in 2010. Admitting I needed help seemed like an admission of weakness, defeat, a rejection of the self-sufficiency I’d worked toward single-mindedly — through high school, college, and the brief span of years that followed.

I also remember a conversation with my dad. It must’ve been after the trauma of my initial diagnosis had subsided somewhat. I was driving north on the 405 — heading home from work — and my dad encouraged me to allow others to help me, not for my sake, but for theirs, and for the opportunity to pay it forward at some indeterminate future date. I wrote his words in a journal I was keeping at the time:

“If you know how to receive comfort, you’ll know how to give comfort,” he said, “and you can give comfort to those who are comforting you just by appreciating them.”

Pretty profound stuff coming out of the mouth of the most self-sufficient, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps guy I’ve ever met. Turns out he was onto something.

In a 2007 issue of Psychiatry, a study entitled “Social Support and Resilience to Stress From Neurobiology to Clinical Practice” states:

Social support is exceptionally important for maintaining good physical and mental health. Overall, it appears that positive social support of high quality can enhance resilience to stress, help protect against developing trauma-related psychopathology, decrease the functional consequences of trauma-induced disorders, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and reduce medical morbidity and mortality.

The study goes on to define social support as:

“support accessible to an individual through social ties to other individuals, groups, and the larger community.” The National Cancer Institute’s Dictionary of Cancer Terms defines social support as “a network of family, friends, neighbors, and community members that is available in times of need to give psychological, physical, and financial help” (www.cancer.gov).

The benefits for those receiving support are clear.

Social isolation and low levels of social support have been shown to be associated with increased morbidity and mortality in a host of medical illnesses. For example, in the well-known Alameda County Studies, men and women without ties to others were 1.9 to 3 times more likely to die from... a host of... diseases within a nine-year period compared to individuals with many more social contacts. The effect of social support on life expectancy appears to be as strong as the effects of obesity, cigarette smoking, hypertension, or level of physical activity.

Givers of support also receive clear health benefits, ranging from lower blood pressure, greater feelings of well-being, lower rates of depression and anxiety, and even a longer lifespan.

So before you say “no,” do yourself — and your friend who’s asking to help — a favor and just say, “yes, please” and “thank you” instead. One day, you’ll have the chance to pay it back... or forward, and more than one life will be enriched in the process.

Pro tip: Once you get comfortable with the idea of allowing others to help you, the next step is removing layers of angst and confusion by letting them know specifically what they can to do be most helpful: a ride to the doctor, 10 specific items from the grocery store, someone to watch a movie with in silence, a good cry fest. You get what you need, and your friend gets to avoid a guessing game that’s a waste of of their time and energy. Everyone wins!

Lesson/advice #2: Be present, feel vulnerably, live authentically.

Six years ago, I would’ve looked at you blankly if you’d given me this advice. Scratch that. I started learning this lesson from those excellent Spaniards when I studied abroad. When I returned to the States, I had a very clear sense of what “living a good life” looked like to me: communing with friends over a tall pitcher of sangria, appreciating culture and art, resisting the American tendency toward overworking and overachieving.

Despite my best intentions, though, I wasn’t living this way at all when I was diagnosed in 2010. I’d been folded back into the American way of life (and into a troubled relationship, now long over), and my vocabulary — literally and emotionally — didn’t contain these ideas. So when faced with a life-altering diagnosis, I had to learn fast. Fortunately, I had some excellent teachers. The first was my husband Mike, who, from the very beginning of our relationship, has encouraged emotional honesty through a complete lack of judgement. His special gift of meeting me where I am allowed me to do the same for myself and to be kinder toward and more accepting of the emotional highs and lows that accompany life with a chronic or terminal illness.

Regardless of health status, I’ve found we tend to hide our true selves and feelings to protect ourselves from judgement by others. The same independence-obsessed culture that tells us we don’t need help from friends also promotes emotional independence over support, connection, and community. On the surface, it seems easier to say “I’m okay” and accept well-meaning platitudes like “stay positive” from friends and strangers who don’t know what else to say. But trying to muddle through it alone is not only scary and isolating, but deprives us of the opportunity to forge deeper connections with our fellow humans, thus making sense of what’s troubling us. What if, instead, we dug in, got vulnerable and said, “I’m hurting. I’m scared. This sucks. I need you to hold me and let me cry and not try to fix it because it’s not okay and there’s nothing to be done.”

When I learned to do that, I became overwhelmed by the capacity of those around me to rise to the challenge with love and empathy. It’s not easy to comfort a friend who is ill or dying or experiencing another significant life trauma. It forces each of us to confront our own fears, our own suffering, and our own mortality. But by giving each other that opportunity, we’re expanding our collective capacity for empathy and connection.

Lesson/advice #3: Surround yourself with the people, experiences, and physical items that bring you joy.

My illness has helped bring into focus the difference between going through the motions of life and making daily, conscious choices that help infuse my life with as much joy as possible. For me, this has meant spending time nurturing the friendships (and family relationships) that help me learn and grow, and simply bring light and laughter to all parties.

Drama, jealously, and toxic relationships can have a severe toll on our well-being, regardless of health status. Focus on those relationships that build you up — and in which you feel you can build the other up — and give yourself the permission to let go of those that are unhealthy and joy-killing.

I’m so fortunate that many wonderful friends and relationships already existed in my life when I was diagnosed, but I’m happy to say my friendships are closer and more meaningful today than they’ve ever been. Mike and I have been very fortunate to add new kindred spirits to our tribe over the past few years as well.

The same goes for the experiences you choose to have. Over the entire course of our relationship, and most especially since I received my terminal diagnosis, Mike and I have been trying to be mindful about how we spend our time. We have packed the years we’ve had together with so many joyful experiences: music, travel, food, camping, hiking, photography. I encourage doing this on the macro and micro levels: Don’t wait to seek out enriching experiences when you have a day off or when you travel. Instead, think about how to make space in your daily life for soul-nourishment. Maybe stop one TV episode short of a binge-watching session, and instead take a walk, read a poem or a short story, get out in nature. Find a creative outlet that brings you joy and pursue it, even if only for a few minutes a day.

Finally, I’ve found that it can be very cathartic to clear out physical possessions that do not bring joy. This personal experience is in keeping with the advice of Japanese decluttering guru Marie Kondo, author of best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The book (which, full disclosure, I haven’t read but have had highly recommended to me) offers a step-by-step guide for reclaiming our physical spaces from the “stuff” that can overrun our lives. This allows for the creation of spaces filled only with items that bring joy and foster serenity and inspiration. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to do just this in our home, and I find it to be a place of calm, comfortable, and peace — essential ingredients to living well.