Column: My Manifesto, Sort Of

Column: My Manifesto, Sort Of

Being diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer (no, they’re not all “terminal”) is “a heck of a thing,” to extrapolate a bit from Jim Valvano’s memorable 1993 ESPY Awards speech given a few months before he succumbed to his cancer. It’s not as if there’s anything you can do in life, beforehand, to prepare for a cancer diagnosis; and there’s even less you can do to prepare for a “terminal” diagnosis, as in my case, when my oncologist – whom I had met 10 minutes earlier – first told me that he “could treat me but he couldn’t cure me,” followed by a “13-month to two-year prognosis.” Surreal is the word I used to describe then what I heard/what I felt, and is also a word I’ve often heard other cancer patients use in recounting the details of the moment when their lives changed forever: when the diagnosis of cancer is confirmed by the oncologist sitting directly across from them. Perhaps you think (hope) that age, experience, education, etc. will carry you through that appointment and the many other cancer-related appointments to follow; the reality is, at least it was for me, you’ll never know how you’re going to react until after you’ve reacted.

With respect to “beating” the cancer; anticipating success, expressing confidence, taking control, hoping and praying, laughing and crying; how it all plays out is somewhere between anybody’s guess and why not? Unbridled optimism may be a great start, but accepting your new reality and reacting/planning accordingly is often a road far less traveled. Having to travel that road because of an unexpected cancer diagnosis (I was a lifelong non-smoker, basically asymptomatic with no family history of cancer) is a trip fraught with danger and unimaginable hurdles: mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. You really don’t know what’s around the next corner, and what’s worse, you really won’t know until you get there – and then it might be too late. Let me summarize it this way: it won’t be a walk in the park unless you derive pleasure from doing so, and if you do, walk a lot. Finding calm (“serenity now”) in the midst of a cancer diagnosis, and likewise attempting to eliminate stress and anxiety is much easier said and written about than actually done. Managing that stress (and anxiety) is the challenge. And if one can somehow traverse, navigate, manipulate even, this path of least resistance; at least on paper, potentially, there might be some light at the end of your tunnel that’s not an oncoming train. That being said, once a malignancy is confirmed, there are no more guarantees. Actually, there is one: you’ll be changed forever in ways you can’t imagine.

Surviving a cancer diagnosis/”terminal” prognosis is a work in progress, literally; except, you might not make any progress, and statistically speaking, you might not survive. Nevertheless, thinking you have no future is the quickest way to not having one. Whether it’s delusions or illusions or just plain confusion, moving forward with a smile on your face and a bounce in your step will help create the kind of positive energy necessary to survive this ordeal. It’s not exactly a recipe for success, but it might be a way to avoid disaster – for a while, anyway.