What do you do about your cancer diagnosis and treatment?

07 February 2019

Most of us have probably heard the age-old quip about there being two certainties in life: death and taxes. We’ve probably smiled inwardly about that, and then got on with life.

One of those certainties is of course an absolute truth: something will get us in the end. Most of us have absolutely no clue what that will be but most of us would like to think that we will ‘pass away peacefully in our sleep’ as the obituary writers are fond of saying.

Then, all of sudden, you’re handed a cancer diagnosis. At that point, you are forced to confront your own, personal mortality.

Cancer’s a death sentence isn’t it?

Well, actually no, it isn’t. It may be, but these days a cancer diagnosis is mostly either a ‘stay of execution’ (meaning it can be managed but not cured) or, rather more promisingly, a notice that the rest of your life will be reasonably ‘normal’ after the prescribed treatments.

Simply put, cancer isn’t the inevitable death sentence it used to be. So many cancers are being cured and many of those that aren’t are put into a state of ongoing management. I know someone whose mother has lived with her cancer for over 24 years now and still lives an active and fulfilling life.

But here’s the important thing: where you personally sit on the scale of cancer, somewhere between certain death and complete cure, is not what this is all about.

Forget that; it’s irrelevant, because wherever you are on that scale there is nothing you can do about it other than accept it. The questions then become:

  • What are you going to do about your diagnosis and treatment?
  • How are you going to get through this and achieve the best possible outcome for your particular situation?

I would like to share with you aspects of my particular journey. Perhaps some of the ideas you will read about here will help you come to terms with, deal with and eventually move beyond the simple clinical truth: you have cancer.

Above all; please approach how you deal with your diagnosis, the treatments and the side effects with a degree of ‘bloody-mindedness’; it will help greatly. You’ve got cancer, but you’re going to make the best of your situation, whatever it is and however it evolves. Please keep this concept in mind as you read on...

It’s all about attitude

Most of us probably don’t think too much about death - we’re too busy getting on with life! Then, all of a sudden, you have received a diagnosis of cancer.

Maybe there were some symptoms. Maybe there weren’t. Maybe you ignored some symptoms. Maybe you didn’t. It doesn’t matter - you are where you are. In my case, I had no symptoms until a few weeks before diagnosis, yet my prostate cancer had been growing inside me for years, apparently. It turned out to be fairly advanced - and it was large and it was inoperable. As I said; you are where you are.

What was I going to do? What were my wife and I going to do? My daughters? How long have I got? Weeks? Months? A few years, perhaps? This mad jumble of questions was racing through my mind.

I reasoned that if I was going to die then what was the purpose of the remainder of my life, short or long? What sort of life did I want to lead and how did I view the future? How did I want to view the future?

The conclusion came in a moment’s thought: ‘normal life’ must continue, or as near ‘normal’ as I could manage it, for anything else would be an utter waste for me, and for my wife and daughters.

I came up with a mantra that neatly encapsulated what I wanted to achieve:

Mantra #1: ‘Normal life because anything else is a waste’

It sounds simple and I suppose it is, but I absolutely believed this mantra and lived it. I still do, for it became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Apart from repeat journeys to the Spire Oncology Centre my life has been pretty ‘normal’ since the diagnosis.

Mantra #2: “The alternative to the treatment is far worse!”

You may see this second mantra, this simple truth, as a choice between two evils: succumb to cancer and its side effects ending in death, or accept the treatment and its side effects and prolong life. It really is a choice between two evils and because you have no option but to accept one of them, you might as well give your all to whichever choice you make - the ‘death’ route, or the ‘survival’ route.

The side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy

No wonder people become unnerved and upset by the range of side effects on offer! But who gets all of them? No one, it seems. You’ll get some of them. Someone else will get a different ‘some of them’. For some people one side effect will be worse than the others, whilst the same side effect may be better or non-existent in someone else. No two people react the same to the same chemotherapy regime. That’s the oddity of it. Get with this idea - it’s the only game in town, so you may as well learn quickly how to play the ‘side effects game’ your way.

I’d like to tell you how I approached the subject of side effects of the treatment. Yes, I read the side effects script and decided that at least I was warned what I might experience - no more surprises for me, thanks very much! Here is my set of rules:

Rule 1: no lengthy periods of inactivity!

Rule 2: just accept the treatment, don’t be anxious about it, be resigned to it - warts and all

Rule 3: accept that your food will taste and smell very different

Rule 4: don’t be fazed about hair loss; it often happens

Rule 5: nail and nerve disruption are irritating but nothing to worry about - just go with it!

Rule 6: observe how your body is reacting to the chemotherapy/radiotherapy - adjust your diet accordingly

Rule 7: cleanliness is essential, both personal and in food preparation

Finally, a word about the taste of food.  Many people find their warped sense of taste rather troubling. I played little games with myself along the lines: “I know what this food is supposed to taste like.  Now let’s see what it actually tastes like!” This worked for me.

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