It’s Thanksgiving, the ultimate American holiday. Families travel to be together for food, family and football and to mark the beginning of the holiday season. With all the festivities, sometimes the meaning of the holiday, giving thanks, escapes. I know there have been times I haven’t stopped to feel gratitude as much as I could. This year I’m particularly thankful for some things that I’d like to share with you.
Eight months ago my wife, Sharon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I’ve told patients for years that cancer is the scariest word in the English language. But as you would expect, it hit me much harder as the spouse than it ever did providing the empathy I always provide to patients. Cancer changes your status in life from being well to being a survivor, that new dimension the American Cancer Society calls every living person with a diagnosis of cancer. It doesn’t mean cured or in remission. It means just what is says…surviving.
Over the past eight months many things have changed for me and my family and finally, the future is looking bright again. Despite the many challenges, I’ve learned some things that aren’t taught well in medical books and I’ve reinforced some things I know intellectually, but now know first hand. I hope these lessons are useful to you if you are one of your loved ones faces the all too prevalent cancer.
1. Tell people what’s going on. I don’t mean it’s the first thing you say and I don’t think it’s necessary to tell every acquaintance or the cashier at the supermarket, but it seems that everyone either has cancer or has a family member who has it. According to the American Cancer Society, about 12 million Americans currently have invasive cancer and about one in three people will get cancer sometime during their lifetime. People definitely can relate to it. It’s easier to come out and just say so. Then if you’re tired or don’t want company, people will understand. And if you need help, people will pitch in. Believe me, it’s no shame or sign of weakness.
2. Cancer changes your life and the lives of those around you. They say it takes a village to raise a child. I’d say that when someone in the village gets cancer, it affects the entire village. It affects everyone we hold dear. Life is precious. We all know we won’t live forever, but appropriately, we don’t think about that most of the time. When someone gets cancer, they are a parent or a child or a sibling or all of the above. And all of those relationships are in peril. For us, the outpouring of love from friends and family has been both humbling and a source of strength. Family members have been totally available and really demonstrated their affection. Friends call and check in. They’ve all shown their support in so many ways. It’s very healing and I think it has been healing for them as well. People want to make her happy because she is worthy and as Clayton Christensen writes in his book How Will You Measure Your Life, Harper Collins, Boston 2012, p117, it deepens their commitment to her and hers to them.
3. Pray and have others pray for you. I’m not sure we need a statistician to tell us whether or not G-d exists, but if you don’t believe in religion and you do believe in math, here is the math theory that states your more likely to be correct if you think “yes.” Almost without fail, when people found out of Sharon’s diagnosis, they offered to pray for her. One of my Catholic friends arranged for his priest to say a prayer weekly and for a special mass for her in a year. The priest did not know that my wife is Jewish, and asked, “What part of Ireland is she from.” My friend responded, “From the good part.” One of my mother’s friends who is a nun asked her entire cloister to pray for Sharon. Every denomination offered their positive thoughts and prayers. These acts of personal giving offer great comfort and support; and both spiritually and mathematically, I believe they help.
4. Meditate. Meditation is a great medication. We got some guidance and support from our good friends Ed and Deb Shapiro. Sharon uses meditation in particular when there is any discomfort or if there are procedures. She has several phrases she says over and over, but you can use any that give you comfort such as “I will survive,” or from Deb Shapiro, “May I be well, May I be happy, May all things go well for me.” One 5-syllable phrase often used in meditation is Om Namah Shivaya. The power of meditation is great and very sustaining during this and other challenging times. My fitness instructor gave her a t-shirt with the phrase Warrior. It seemed to fit.
5. Find relaxing music. Music is an incredibly powerful tool for healing. When Sharon was in the hospital she listened to my Lullaby, Sleep Tight and Relax CDs. Ironically, I had written the Lullaby CD for her father when he had cancer and couldn’t sleep and it helped him greatly. The music key choices and order, and the tempo of the instrumental songs, create deep relaxation. Her caregivers would literally slow down when they entered her hospital room. Creating a peaceful environment that you can control is a great help both in the hospital and doctors appointments and at home. Find your favorite peaceful music and use it. Headphones that keep out noise and surround you with peacefulness are a great asset when going for procedures.
6. Spouses (significant others) need time too. For that window of time, I changed my priorities. My primary agenda was to be supportive and available. That meant cancelling many of my commitments, going to her appointments, pitching in on household chores that are usually not on my plate, etc. But there are a few things that I held on to. Going to my fitness appointments and music sessions each week were sacred. I may have rescheduled them, but I was not going to miss them. They kept my head on straight and were great stress reducers. I also made time to write music every day. It’s therapy in 88 piano keys. If you were to listen to the songs as my music teacher Ben Schwendener does each week, it was pretty clear how I was doing, or at least how I was doing at that moment. But then it came out and it freed up my emotions and kept me even. Find your release and weave it into the week. You deserve it and you need it.
7. Gratitude is essential. Maintaining an attitude of gratitude really helps. Andrew Weill suggests keeping a “gratitude journal.” Just write down everything you have to be grateful for each night before you go to bed. He believes doing this for a week can keep you happier for up to six months. I know it helps. I try to come with three things I’m grateful for every day. And the things you can be grateful for can be big or small; you can keep food down, the beauty of a flower, the joy of a friend’s visit, your incision has stopped hurting, the nurse got your blood on the first stick. The list is endless. It’s the awareness that has to be developed and it makes a huge difference.
8. Living in the moment. One of my wife’s friends is also dealing with cancer. When she found that she had a recurrence, her comment was, “I’ve had 7 wonderful months.” How many of us squander days, weeks or even years mired in unhappiness or lamenting that everything isn’t perfect? Cancer, especially one that isn’t assured of a cure, starts a survivor’s clock ticking. Make every second count.
9. Laugh often and loud. Researchers in Norway found that among near death patients, maintaining a good sense of humor increased their odds of survival—by 31 percent. Make humor a part of each day. Look at anything and everything with an eye for what humor can be found. Believe me, with careful inspection, there is humor all around us. Keep laughter reminders, exaggerate annoyances, carry a prop, state your fear out loud and then laugh at it, or find a laugh buddy – someone with a sense of humor who will encourage regular ha ha’s. Laughter is contagious. It triggers our mirror neurons.
We have just completed the third phase of the triathlon – radiation, surgery and chemotherapy. So far all the signs are good. My medical and personal belief is that Sharon will be cured. But in the meantime, we’ve got some tools to help us cope. I hope they will be helpful to you. In closing, I wrote a song for the American Cancer Society called I Will Survive. I’ve made a free copy of it (click here) available for you to download.