Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
Hiya, I see on the Internet you've had some wild news. What did they diagnose? What are your timelines? About the diagnosis: I have a friend, a former Special Forces officer, sometimes stationed in Baghdad's Green Zone, who says: "Hold on partner! We are going to eat this cow one bite at a time." It's true: After the first diagnosis, things happen in much more manageable packets.
I had cancer in the old days, 1978, Hodgkin's disease, three stages of four. It took four months to fully diagnose how far it had progressed, including a suggestion to shunt uterus and Fallopian tubes aside during radiation, and then move them back again, like books on a shelf. I got a second opinion on that and didn't do it, but mostly I went along with whatever was happening.
I had three courses of radiation: six weeks each, five days a week (a ton by today's standards).
My skin turned purple and flaked off in large, hexagonal, aubergine-coloured peels. The hair on the back of my head fell out but I couldn't see it and it didn't hurt, so that wasn't so bad. I got 18 tiny tattoos in public and private places. I was nauseous and I puked from time to time, but in a humorous way, I like to think: My sister asked how I liked the supper she'd cooked and we had just eaten; I went to the bathroom and hurled.
The little cookies put out by the Ladies Auxiliary (do they still have those?) were a treat. I still love those flower-shaped Peek Freans with jam in the centre.
All this to say that you are not alone, a cancer diagnosis is a horrible thing; it is a test and can be a hard one. You will get through this, you are strong, you have some insurance, you have world-class care and you have me, way over here, rooting for you.
My thoughts on how to equip yourself for the coming months?
Get a binder and a hole-punch for all the different papers, pamphlets and instructions. I also keep medical bracelets in a Ziploc bag so I can wonder at how many times I've been to the hospital. They are like badges of honour.
Put a big calendar on the fridge so everyone can see your appointments. This may seem public, but if someone reads about an appointment it could be an entry point for discussion. Some folks have a difficult time talking about scary stuff, and your visitor or family may not say anything at all for fear of saying something wrong.
I like audio books: Harry Potter, David Sedaris, Nora Ephron or high seas with Hornblower. Having an alternative universe at your fingertips is a modern luxury.
Plan yourself some breaks: Have someone make a couple of nice casseroles to have in the freezer, order in. Hire someone to do the cleaning; you don't need the anxiety of chores. Anyway, you'll still have to look after the cats.
This is the time to really get into your hobby; I sporadically knit, it's cumulative and I can carry it anywhere. Cotton washcloths are about my level.
Jeez, this all sounds so preachy. If I could, I'd just come for a coffee and we'd hash it all out.
Be early for your appointments and pair them up with something nice, such as a coffee or a scenic drive.
Find a cheap place to park near the hospital.
Eat your veggies and drink water. Get your hair done. Go to a spa from time to time.
Try to have a simple date with your sweetheart once a week, a meal and a movie at home even, so you have something to talk about that isn't about illness or cats.
Most days, I wrote a little, just for me, just to get it out. Then if worries crept up at night, I could say to myself, "That is in the book, there is no good reason to be ruminating about it at night when I can't do anything anyway. So out you go, thought." Then I would try to find something calmer to occupy my mind. I have a mantra: "I will wake up relaxed and refreshed" and it's weird how well this works for getting back to sleep.
I hardly know you and this note has way too many adamant points; you don't have to use any of them. Everyone finds his or her own way. You will, too. Trust your gut instinct and if something doesn't suit you, if an appointment is too early or there are too many in a day or week, just ask for another. Get a second opinion.
Make sure all you doctors are on the same page; this one point is remarkably important.
As grim as it might seem, it actually feels good to get your affairs in order. Your will probably won't be used this year, but having it in place can give you peace of mind for the rest of your life.
My thoughts are with you. Drop me a line or just call any time.
Venetia Butler lives in Toronto.