A Healthy Determination


By Sandra Dempsey Post

Even though the diagnosis was made some six months ago, it is still difficult for me to say the words, “I have cancer.”  While there are many diseases and health risks, for me and likely others who feel this way, cancer seems exceedingly threatening and with so much to fear. Heart disease was what I expected would be my health challenge since that was one of the causes of death for both of my parents. But even with modern medicine, highly skilled physicians, and technology that is truly mind-boggling, we all remain vulnerable to health issues and we can’t guess or plan our way to a diagnosis.

From the moment the word cancer is suspected, there is a flurry of activity to undergo the proper tests that will provide a definitive answer. During this important time it’s likely the patient is feeling poorly, or at least has some unsettling symptoms. And even though we’ve come to expect immediate answers for many situations, sometimes results aren’t available within 24 hours. Waiting is so very difficult, and the mind seems to travel from one possible frightening conclusion to another. We may know people who’ve had cancer, some of whom are either in remission or are cured, and one who has died, and our thoughts will fixate on the person no longer living. Fear does that. It changes our thinking, and frightening thoughts coupled with feeling poorly do not make for a positive outlook.

Since I’ve now personally experienced the fear and uncertainty of a future that includes cancer, it’s a bit embarrassing to admit that previously when I heard someone was being treated for it, I was sorry and kind in my responses, but I’ve since realized how clueless I was about what that diagnosis meant for the individual.  It’s much more than frequent doctor visits and tests, and waiting for those test results, and sitting for hours while the chemo flows through the body.  Not everyone responds the same way to treatments and it’s difficult trying to prepare. The unknown can be almost as difficult as the reality of a situation.

We mark time individually as we go through different life experiences. Before we started the new job; after we were married; before we moved to a bigger house; before the diagnosis of cancer; after we completed chemo; and on it goes. And that’s okay as long as we don’t get bogged down by sadness or self-pity. Hearing other people’s stories and coping strategies often helps remedy that, and help is available if we ask.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was extremely sad because of the unknown about how long I would live. But then it occurred to me that even when I thought I was healthy, I didn’t know how long I would live. It is not easy to deal with uncertainty and yet that is part of the human condition that we often don’t recognize until our circumstances change.

Treatment for cancer takes many different forms. Sometimes chemo is administered multiple days a week or it’s a changing schedule or it’s every three weeks or it starts and stops only to start again before all treatment is completed. Sometimes surgery is part of the process, happening before chemo or afterwards. I began with chemo, followed by surgery in January and weeks of recovery, and then chemo begins again.

Whatever adversity we must endure in life challenges us to find its redemption through our beliefs and more importantly our actions. I am humbly amazed and grateful for the many kindnesses extended to my family and me during this difficult time. While I’m not able just yet to pass on to others what’s been given so generously to me, I know my turn will come and I will do my best to honor it. I find that’s a productive way to make some “sense,” if you will, out of hardships in life. We can learn from them, perhaps making changes in our own life and also sharing with others what we’ve learned. A pot of soup and homemade chocolate chip cookies do not remove cancer, but they warm the heart and stomach, making the pain seem a little less and the possibility of healing a little more.

Another positive contributing factor to comfort and healing are the countless medical professionals who possess not only considerable knowledge, but also abundant compassion and a sincere desire to be helpful. Likely there’s a gloomy or short-tempered few in their ranks, but I haven’t met anyone yet fitting that description. Medicine is amazing in its healing powers, but the human touch and kindness can also make a huge difference. Kudos to those who so generously help take care of others, particularly at times when patients are feeling particularly vulnerable.

Cancer is a commanding presence in one’s life. It is strong, powerful, and seems to have little compassion or concern, but plows through one’s body seemingly with no regard for injuries, pain, or the sadness experienced when the patient feels he or she is losing the battle. And yet countless people risk it all to try to eradicate the disease and “buy” themselves more time. Sometimes, at some point, those fighting valiantly to live longer, decide enough is enough and choose to discontinue treatment and make peace with whatever time is left. It’s a tough decision that no one wants to make, but it is good to remember that acceptance of what is can also be healing.

Some of us believe we have time enough, at least as of right now, to consider and plan “what I want to do with the rest of my life.”  The choices are many, but time is never infinite. Right now it feels like a vast amount of time has been lost because of COVID, and I’m learning how precious each day is and am hoping to make wise choices. As a person who faithfully reads obituaries, not in a morbid way, but respectfully thinking about people no longer with us, I am amazed and humbled by men and women who fought cancer for years, sometimes years and years. Such determination is incredible and admirable.

I hope whatever my outcome, that I can be as strong and focused as so many who have gone before me, and those who are still challenged by cancer as I am.

To Be Continued…

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