What cancer taught me about tough times
Everything I know about facing COVID-19, I learned from cancer.
Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration. But, 10 years ago, a diagnosis of Stage 3 breast cancer followed by surgery, six months of chemotherapy, two months of radiation, emergency thyroid surgery and a broken leg taught me a lot about how to manage fear, isolation and just plain bad days.
So, when coronavirus anxiety and impatience hits me particularly hard, I fall back on some of my cancer hacks. If nothing else, it reminds me that, like many of us, I’ve survived other things in my life that taught me psychic survival tips. Here’s a list of the strategies I use the most:
Watch out for triggers
During cancer treatment, I knew I would feel awful the third day after chemo and could prepare for it. With COVID-19, stormy days are my bugaboo, because I can’t get outside and at least wave at a real, live person. So, if I wake up to a gray day, I make a special effort to connect with the outside world and call a friend or treat myself to an indulgence.
Count moments, not days.
We celebrated Thanksgiving the year I was sick, but I couldn’t tell you much about it except this: A half hour after I retreated to my bedroom, one of my kids’ friends knocked on the door to chat. I have no idea what we talked about, but I still see her sitting on the end of my bed laughing. I remember because I kept a list of things that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had cancer. A bit Pollyannaish, but it worked for me. These days, I look for one moment each day and use it like my talisman -- yesterday it was a hawk swooping across the yard.
Break time into small intervals
Here’s the thing with chemo: First they pump you full of stuff that knocks you silly; then they give you steroids that leave you bouncing off the walls. It felt insane. I learned to break time down into small increments, as in, OK, I can get through the next 30 minutes of feeling jittery, anxious, stressed, sad, bored, whatever. Then, I’ll worry about the next 30 minutes. Usually, by the time I got into the second or third interval, something changed to make the day pass more quickly. I use that trick now when I think I can’t stand my four walls any longer.
Stop obsessing: It’s just hair
Silly as it seems, the state of my hair affects my mood and my self-worth. But, heck I was bald for eight months. It was a badge to be worn proudly since it declared I was going through something. Well, now, we are all going through something, and my ever-lengthening bangs are a sign that I’m doing what I’m following orders and staying home. It’s one less thing to worry about. If a bad haircut is the worst it gets, I’ll be fine.
Normal is overrated
For the first few weeks of chemo, I worked full time and tried to get through the day by taking naps on my boss’ couch. Like now, I needed to pretend something difficult wasn’t going to affect daily life. But, of course, it was. By not admitting the difficulties, I was making life more complicated for my co-workers and worrisome for my family. It took my boss to tell me to cut back and let others help out. I remind myself now that I should not hold myself accountable to normal standards. And, as with cancer, whatever “normal” looks like in the future, it will be different than the old normal.
Forgive yourself for needing care
People idealize cancer patients as noble fighters. And some moments I was that person. A lot of moments, I wasn’t, and I had to rely on the strength of those around me. Now, I try to forgive myself for not saving the world. It’s OK to collapse for a few hours on the couch with a sleeve of Oreos or call a pal and admit I’m sad.
Empathy is good medicine
It was easy in a cancer hospital to see someone who was suffering more than I. And I spent the year emailing with a friend serving in Afghanistan, messages filled with lots of black humor. On my bad COVID days I make an effort to check on someone else. And remind myself that I’m lucky not to have a frightening job or someone else to care for in my house.
Anticipate the delayed reaction
Typical of many cancer patients, I was most anxious when my “job” of treatment ended, and I was separated from the empathy of my medical caregivers. That’s when I found a support group helpful. It's impossible to know COVID-19’s long-term effects on our psyches or even our bodies. I won’t be surprised if I have some PTSD months from now and need extra support.
Humor was healthy and distracting for me and offered intermittent victories over fear. I rated medical waiting rooms -- an updated copy of People was worth 5 stars. I relished silly notes and dumb hats. And we created my favorite Christmas card ever: All the family and the dog in bald caps. I’m so grateful for all the crazy folks out there taking the time to make us laugh in the face of coronavirus. Keep it up.