One lazy Tuesday evening of 2009, I was watching The Oprah Show with my husband. That night, Oprah was interviewing Fran Drescher, whom I had loved as The Nanny years before. She was discussing the day she had been diagnosed with cancer. Oprah asked her how a person recovers from the news of a cancer diagnosis. She answered something like,
“I literally dropped to my knees and wept… You can kick and scream for a while, but eventually, you have to play the hand that’s been dealt with you. Play it elegantly, play it courageously. Play it with a great deal of strength.”
Little did I know, I would receive a breast cancer diagnosis exactly 10 days later. My children were 11 and 6 years old. These are some tips I can share on how to play best when you are dealt a hand like this.
ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING, BUT FAITH IS THE BASIS FOR ATTITUDE
The first few days were an emotional mess. And that’s OK. But I would remember Fran Drescher’s words, “Play it elegantly, play it courageously. Play it with strength”. So, where to get the strength to play elegantly and courageously? In my case, it had to be faith. The next day after my diagnosis, we attended a Confirmation ceremony. When it was time to give peace during the mass, my husband and I hugged each other and promised that we would not worry, we would put ourselves in God’s hands. And we kept the promise. Once that was settled, nothing seemed insurmountable anymore. Whatever the outcome, whatever the road ahead, God was in control.
REGULAR PRAYER TIME, BEST ENJOYED WITH LOVED ONES
An excellent friend called me and asked me if I’d be comfortable if she organized a rosary with people we both knew. I immediately said YES. It was a beautiful experience that filled Juan Carlos and me with our community of friends' love. After the rosary, someone suggested that everyone place a hand on my head, shoulder, or back. There were probably 12-15 people in the room. When everyone gathered around me, placing their hands on me and saying different prayers, I felt this incredible healing and comforting energy that I will never forget. Since that day, a smaller group has decided to pray once a month with me during my treatment. My treatment was over in about 18 months, but the prayer group remained until this day, eleven years later!
FIND YOUR MEDICAL TEAM
Each case is different, but we went to three consultations with three different oncologists. We made a list of the pros and cons of each doctor. I ended up choosing the doctor I felt the most comfortable, both in my connection to her and the treatment she proposed. We added a doctor-approved naturopathic doctor/acupuncturist. Gradually, other doctors and nurses became part of the picture, and I always tried to stick to the ones who made me feel good. I completely stopped worrying about my treatment and concentrated on feeling as best as possible.
Every time someone would call asking if they could help, I would shamelessly enlist them to do something for my family or me. Something I knew I’d feel comfortable doing for them if the roles were reversed. So I asked friends with kids to, once in a while, feel free to invite our kids for a play date, a movie, etc. Other friends offered to bring food the day of and the 2-3 days after chemotherapy; I loved that part, and I felt very loved and cared for, not to mention relieved that my husband didn’t have to figure out the shopping and cooking part on his own while I was resting. A crafty neighbor sews a pillowcase made from an oversized silk scarf. It took a village to get me on my two feet. Sure, some people offered help and never followed through, and I figured that’s OK, too, I didn’t feel offended about it.
LOOK PRETTY, FEEL COMFORTABLE
I’ve never been particularly vain, but taking care of my appearance helped my spirits. My husband gave me a small one-time allowance, and, with that money, I bought a nice wig ahead of time and an eyebrow stencil kit. Once my hair and eyebrows were gone, I had fun wearing my wig or a colorful bandana, used brown powder to brush in my “eyebrows” and dark eyeliner to outline my eyes with little dots simulating eyelashes. I would add a little blush, some lip gloss, and voila! I was ready to go out. I also bought two sets of soft PJs for my super long naps.
LISTEN TO CLASSICAL MUSIC
Listening to classical music during treatment, especially Mozart, is a good way to stimulate the brain and nurture emotional wellbeing. Try to get in at least 40-60 minutes of classical music delivered through a set of good quality headphones; they need not be expensive. If you don’t feel like walking, try to do a calm, effortless activity like drawing or coloring while listening.
TALK TO SOMEONE WHO HAS GONE THROUGH SOMETHING SIMILAR
One of my husband’s bosses had his wife go through a similar type of cancer years before, and she called me one night; we then had lunch together. One of my childhood friends had me connect with her sister-in-law, who had gone through a similar situation. Both were women of deep faith and with a very positive outlook on life. They gave me excellent advice after patiently listening to my story, the details of my diagnosis (no two cases are the same). I consider them both angels sent by God. I share with you some wise concepts they taught me that I still share with other women that have, in turn, contacted me after I was declared cancer-free:
- Jesus will get close to you in a unique way during this time. No one wants to get cancer, and no one misses their treatment, but you will definitely enjoy and eventually miss the level of intimacy that you will have with Christ during your treatment. It was their experience, it became my experience, and it has remained the experience of all women I have met afterward, who have turned to their faith for comfort.
- Receive chemo and any other treatments with gratitude, not with fear. Think how lucky you are that all these treatments and medications exist. Talk to the medications if need be. Thank them for entering your body, doing their work, and then leaving your body taking part or all of your cancer with them.
- You have the right to choose what to receive from other people, especially other cancer stories. When people call to share a story of something that happened to another cancer patient, stop them and ask, “Is this a story that will make me feel good? If it’s not, I prefer not to hear it. If it’s a good story, I’m all ears”.
- Don’t engage in treatment conversations, except with your doctors. There are different types of treatments, depending on age, type of cancer, stage, etc. Discussing and comparing treatments, especially with family members who know nothing about it, may leave you stressed and leaving them frustrated.
- Once your treatment is over, you may –if you feel good about it– help other cancer patients who have been newly diagnosed BUT do so AFTER your new hair is long enough to touch your shoulders. That takes about a year. Your body and emotions take a while to get back to where they were before cancer and helping other people face cancer may be counterproductive initially.