Teddy Roosevelt is quoted as saying "Comparison is the thief of joy." I've found this to be particularly true in the area of my own personal journey with cancer. I learned the hard way that comparing my disease to someone else's not only steals my joy, it has the potential to chip away at my resolve. It can keep me awake at night, in a vortex of fearful speculation of my own making.
A little over two years ago, I was diagnosed with Stage IIIC fallopian tube cancer; and I've been managing my cancer and the subsequent side effects of treatment pretty much continuously ever since. In that time, I've learned that staying present and keeping a strong mental attitude are essential to my well being. Having recently been told that my cancer is of the recurrent sort, maintaining this mindset is now more important than ever.
After I was diagnosed, I became connected to a very large and diverse community of individuals whose lives had also been touched by cancer, including others in treatment at the same time as I. What I realized pretty quickly is, not all of us were going to make it. I became bonded with people who, for a wide variety of reasons, ended up dying from the disease. It wasn't because they didn't fight, didn't have a lot to live for, or didn't have a positive mental attitude ... they did. They just didn't make it. And it shook me to my core each time one of my fellow sojourners was lost. It still does.
The first time I lost a new friend in the cancer community, I spent more than a few sleepless nights obsessing over the details of their experience with the disease, trying to find ways to distinguish the facts of their situation from mine. Not only was I grieving the loss of someone to whom I'd been connected, I feared I would be next. And each time another of us died, I felt more like a sitting duck. I could get pretty maudlin, pretty quickly.
A friend of mine observed that I must feel a bit like someone trying to cross a huge field while under sniper fire, watching others crossing that same field -- my comrades -- get picked off one by one while I kept going. Her analogy wasn't far off.
The list of my fallen comrades has far too many names and continues to grow. Current statistical evidence shows that one in every three women will get cancer in her lifetime, as will one out of every two men. And of the women, one out of every five will die from cancer; for the men, one out of every four. I don't know what technically constitutes an epidemic, but those numbers feel pretty epidemic-like to me. It's enough to keep one in a perpetual state of panic.
So how do I keep going across that open field in the line of sniper fire when all I really want to do sometimes is just lay down, cover my head and hide?
First, I remind myself that I cannot compare my cancer to anyone else's cancer, even those who appear to have the exact same diagnosis and staging as mine. Their cancer is not my cancer. Their outcome is not my outcome. And no good will come of allowing myself to go down the mental rabbit hole of projecting someone else's outcome onto my future.
The truth is that every single person's cancer is different -- even those diagnosed as the same type and stage -- because that cancer exists in a unique human body unlike no other, with a unique life history and genealogy. I've met people with cancer of a lesser stage than mine who didn't make it, while I've just as frequently met survivors who dealt with higher stages of cancer decades in the past and are still going strong. There's no algorithm that will determine which of us will make it and which of us won't. There are endless factors at play, and cancer is unpredictable and constantly morphing. Burning mental cycles by speculating and comparing my situation to others is a waste of my valuable time and energy.
So what can we do, if not worry and speculate and compare?
I'll pass on the advice I recently gave to a newly diagnosed friend who was feeling defeated and overwhelmed in the face of her diagnosis:
You can fight.
Educate yourself about your particular diagnosis, using reliable, vetted sources (not About.com, blind Internet searches, or message boards). Get genetic testing, if applicable. Make the best possible decisions for your medical care based on the information available to you at the time. And if you get a bad feeling about a doctor, nurse, diagnosis or treatment plan, go get a second opinion. Or a third.
Listen to your gut. This is the only life you have. Find your voice and use it, even if doing so is out of your comfort zone.
Take care of yourself. Be pro-active. Take control of the things you can control. Change your diet. Get clean. Move your body. Go outside. Breathe fresh air. Address side effects of treatment with safe, supplemental holistic treatments like acupuncture and massage and yoga and meditation. Learn about the resources and support groups available to you and then use them. Make YOU a priority, probably for the first time in your life. Self-care is not selfish or a luxury; it's a necessity for you right now.
Connect with others. Surround yourself with positive people, and weed out the ones who aren't ... seriously. Learn to ask for and accept help; you can pay it forward later. Talk about your fears and feelings with someone safe who can handle it (and that person may not be your partner or parent or child). Make friends with the people you see when you go in for treatment, as well as everyone who works in the treatment center, from your oncology team to the receptionists to the phlebotomists. Learn their names and the details about their lives. These folks are now part of your circle.
Set your intentions on the future. A positive attitude alone may not save you, but a negative one will hurt you. Visualize the cancer cells inside your body being killed, one by one. If your treatment plan includes it, think of the chemotherapy drugs or radiation waves as the ultimate cleanse. Document your journey with photographs to share with others later. Keep a journal. Plan for the future and talk out loud about the things you're going to do after treatment. Send yourself the message that you are going to get through this, because your body is listening.
It ain't over 'til it's over. So as tempting as it may be to start preparing for the end, a far more productive use of your time is to prepare for what's next. And if you catch yourself comparing your situation to someone else's, remember:
You are on your own journey. Your outcome has not been decided. You are unique; you are radiant; you are alive; and you are here. So be here.
Image via Brooke Kelly Photography.