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Reassessing My Life After Being Diagnosed With Cancer Twice

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When I am alone at night, I can recall the smallest detail in vivid intensity — the antiseptic hospital smell, the softness of the cotton cloth against my fingers, the shiny coolness of the bars on the hospital bed, the soreness of my throat from the intubation.

My breath quickens, my heart beats faster and I can feel my palms start to sweat.

Sometimes I have to close my eyes and remember where I am, safe in my bed.

It was worse years ago. The flashbacks were steady, on a continuous loop like the movie “Groundhog Day.”

I didn’t feel very mighty then, but I do now.

It’s hard to relieve the worst night of your life. I want to believe our brains store the joyous occasions more, like a special Christmas, a wedding day, the pride and accomplishment of a graduation. Back then I was gripped with fear, like a wolf about to pounce or a bear charging forward to attack. You witness the moment immediately prior to the attack and you can imagine what comes next.

Except it didn’t happen that way.

About twenty years ago I was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease for the second time. The initial diagnosis was a shock but the chemotherapy regimen was tolerable and my father, husband and good friends helped me.

The second time it packed the wallop of a hurricane; the cancer had spread into my stomach, one of my lungs had collapsed, and I had a complication called pericarditis — where fluid forms around the heart and has the potential for heart attack. My blood pressure was negligible and I was hospitalized immediately upon seeing the doctor.

My oncologist didn’t think I would survive surgery, so they attempted to try needle aspiration to remove the fluid. It failed.

When I woke up from anesthesia I was on a respirator to help me breathe. My throat was killing me and the nurses were afraid I would pull out the tube, so they tied my fingers with torn white strips of sheet knotting them to the side railings.

I saw the hollow terror in the face of my husband and the tears streaming down my mother’s face. The doctors would have to decide what to do next. They left and I watched the shadows in the hallway and listened to the chatter of the nurses.

It felt surreal, like i had stumbled upon a Halloween house and I was enlisted to play a patient.

I lay in the ICU all night, running my fingers up and down the railings, trying to will myself to stay alive.

When we try to control the uncontrollable, the mind often resorts to magical thinking. I thought that if I stayed awake all night and made it through this night, I would survive.

I prayed, bargained with God, counted tiny holes in the ceiling and how many times my fingers slipped up and down the railings. I knew I had no control over the outcome of my cancer but wanted to believe I did.

I stayed awake all night and in the morning, my oncologist made her rounds and began an aggressive form of chemotherapy.

I faced a year of chemotherapy ahead of me, but I had survived the night.

The next year was daunting; I was hospitalized several times for infections, one of which almost did me in. I had sores in my mouth, lost all my hair and a year prior to my recurrence, had lost my father, who was my rock.

I was bored. I was twenty-eight years and fighting just to survive.

One of the most challenging parts of having cancer young is you feel so different from your peers. They are marrying, launching new careers, having children — and you are struggling to live.

The hair loss only serves to exacerbate the difference. In fact, at times I felt I had more in common with elderly people — bald elderly people in particular.

I had made a bargain with God that night that if I survived, I would help other people — didn’t know with what, but I was determined to make a difference. I made it my mission to get well and even though I knew the outcome was uncertain, I was not going to give up without a fight.

I ate healthy food, walked for exercise, used guided imagery to help me relax, and when I became depressed, went to therapy and took medication necessary to enable me to keep fighting.

I joined a cancer support group dedicated to young people with cancer to counteract those feelings of loneliness and being different than my contemporaries.

I clung to my sense of humor. One time I was sitting with my two brothers in the living room when a commercial came on reporting one out of every three people will get cancer in their lifetime. I turned to them and said,”Well I guess you two are safe.”

As I felt better I volunteered at a mental health center, at first just assisting them with office work, then helping with a suicide hotline.

I found I enjoyed listening to people and assisting them, so a few months before the end of chemotherapy, I started graduate school for a Masters in Social Work. The boredom ceased and was replaced with purposeful activity, but the work was fascinating and fulfilling.

And having cancer taught me compassion for others who are experiencing the same thing.

It wasn’t easy ending chemotherapy. I was anxious about discontinuing the medication used to eradicate the cancer. I had to rely solely on my body to keep me healthy, but it had already failed me twice. It took me time to learn to trust my body again.

But I learned and grew from my cancer experience.

I am grateful that my body has remained healthy.

I am grateful for my family, friends and doctors who have healed me in so many ways.

I am grateful for my clients who have chosen to share their stories with me in my 23 years of service as a psychotherapist.

It hasn’t always been an easy life. I’ve had a heart attack and an accident that threatened my life in addition to my cancer experiences. If I’m a reincarnated cat then I have at least five more lives to go.

But life is good and life lessons are abundant if you choose to see them.

Most importantly, I have kept my sense of humor. I’m retired now and have a humor blog ( that keeps me focused on the funny, absurd aspects of life.

As a trained psychotherapist, I pay attention to the stories people tell, even if it’s a story of the worst night of their lives.

I now see mine as a touchstone. It began with a fight, a determination to live despite the pain and uncertainty of my life. It set me on a journey I have loved, despite its challenges and broken dreams.

I have to thank the universe for that.

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Thinkstock photo by lolostock

Originally published: October 16, 2017
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