Today is my first monday back and I was REALLY tempted to skip my three hour sociology lecture to relax and work on the midterm due in that class. But, I decided against it since I already missed two consecutive weeks, and we were having a “panel discussion” this week with a biology class. After going to the wrong side of the building (up four flights and down four flights and then up four flights on the other side of Given) I finally entered a room with four women sitting in front of the class. My peers had been given a preview of what this special lecture was on, but I was going in completely blind- and man, I have never been so happy to go to class.
Before I explain, I just want to say that everyone has one class or one professor that they’ll always remember. Mine? This lecture is something I hope to never forget.
The panel consisted of four women. One woman lost her husband to cancer, two of them have cancer, and the fourth was a visiting nurse/caregiver who was connected to all three cases. These are just summaries off notes I took frantically in class.
First Speaker: This woman’s husband died of cancer. It all started when he started seeing blood in his urine. After a few ER visits, they determined that he had some sort of kidney/ bladder infection. His antibiotics made him feel fantastic, and when he went in for a follow up appointment two weeks later, that’s when he found out he had transitional cell carcinoma (a stage 4 cancer that spreads rapidly all over the body- a really terrible prognosis). She told the audience that her family was “new” to cancer- totally in the dark. No one offered to sit the family down and explain what was happening and how to proceed both medically and emotionally. Her husband never wanted to discuss death until it was imminent. At one point, he went out to California to try a holistic approach. She would have gone with him, but they had two children in school and she couldn’t leave. She described herself as a “dual caregiver”- she was the trunk of the tree supporting one branch that represented her children and the other, her sick husband. When her husband finally passed she told us “once death occurs, the real healing begins- and I don’t think it’ll ever stop”. Her emphasis on making it through was keeping her family together and talking about it with her family and friends. Her husband died in 2005, but he’ll always remain a part of her heart and their family.
Second Speaker: This woman is currently going through treatment. She had lost her hair to chemo but was calm and optimistic on her approach to cancer and treatment. She works in the immunology research department at UVM and is currently getting treatment at Fletcher Allen. She likes to call her cancer a “speed bump”, “I’m just a person who happens to have cancer”- she refuses to be defined by her cancer (just like me!). She assessed her cancer like she asses her research, and found herself emotionally accepting this later in her journey. She has total confidence in her medical “dream team” and is ready for this part in her life to be over. She said that in a way she felt lucky to have cancer because thats when the real love and support comes out.
Third Speaker: This woman took cancer to a whole new level. Her battle with various forms of cancer has reached 40 years! She was diagnosed at age 28 and has spent the majority of her life dealing with cancer. She described her acceptance by living in the “natural world”. “I am not only okay, I am beautiful. The scars on my body are beautiful”. She would spend time in nature and feel connected to everything around her. Over time she “felt part of a living web. I feel connected in a divine, spiritual presence. Everything is interconnected- everything is one”. She also finds it important for other people to talk about her cancer and how it effects them. She started to tear up when she confessed to the audience that she gave up her car keys yesterday, but other than that, death doesn’t not scare her. “Each step” she said “feels like a slow surrender- wherever I go will be wonderful”. Among other projects she’s worked on, she just finished up her life memoirs (an accumulation of 9 hours) and will be available online in the near future. She spoke so freely about her life and her feelings, that I’m sure every minute is just as captivating as her small cancer summary she gave in class.
Caregiver: Finally, the caregiver that is connected to each of these women spoke. She told us that although she works with all types of terminally ill patients, cancer is the most profound. Cancer focuses on what’s really important and substantial in life. Working with cancer patients has changed the way she thinks and sees life. “It makes you realize that time, no matter how little or long you have left, is precious and should not be wasted”.
After the Q&A, I approached the panel and timidly thanked them. I told them I was diagnosed with cancer in August and that it meant so much to me that they came to class to share their stories. They asked me how I was doing and wished me luck with everything. It was a nice little moment.
After a short intermission, my sociology class met back up to discuss what we had heard and how it related to the things we talked about in our class. My professor asked for us to write a reflection to pass in, but because I have so many things to reflect about, I told her I’d write it here (here you go, Professor Cowan!).
1. Insecurities. Is it weird to say I’m self-conscious about my cancer? I have seen and heard some really tough stories about brain cancer and cancers that spread to one or more secondary locations. I’ve heard success stories of those who beat it and memorial tributes to those who left us for the next adventure to the great beyond. But me? My cancer has a very good prognosis. They removed my thyroid and I did the treatment and unofficially, things seem to be okay. I feel a little timid to talk about my story because I “lucked out”. But, hearing these women talk and seeing my classmates who have only experienced cancer secondhand, I realized, I know cancer in a intimate way. I joined the cancer club and just because I didn’t need chemotherapy doesn’t mean my fight is any less than those who have. It’s not about the kind of cancer you have, its about the journey you let it take you on through out life and how it will forever change who you are.
2. Inspiration. These women were so eager to speak to us about their stories, that I feel motivated to speak more openly about my own. If someone asks me about my cancer, I’m not shy in talking about it. I want people to be educated on the subject since it’s a new epidemic on the rise. Someone who asks, really wants to know more than just a simple “i’m fine” “it’s fine” response.
3. The medical system. These women all briefly reflected on their medical experience, which made me think back on my own. One resounding piece of advice was to “never go alone”. I found out about both my nodule and my cancer alone. Obviously Kristin and John were in the waiting room, but I went in by myself (now that I’m a legal “adult” and don’t need my parents in the room for consent or to make a medical decision). The doctor who found the nodule and scheduled the ultra sound actually called me and left a voicemail about the cancer. I know I’ve already told you all this… but still… a VOICEMAIL?! “Hi Taylor, this is Dr. Mark. The ultrasound showed a suspicious looking lump and you’ll need a biopsy as soon as possible. Call me back!” I mean seriously, have we lost the knowledge of bedside manor all together? My surgeon was really cool though. She talked to both my mom and I, and addressed questions brought up by either person. She drew us a diagram of what my thyroid/ lumps looked like, where my scar would be and was totally honest with potential side effects of the surgery. During my post surgery appointment, she directed information to me and regarded me as the VIP in the room. My parent’s questions and comments were regarded second. She made sure to make me feel like a person, not a cancer patient. I can’t really relate to my specialist on a personal level. He sees so many people with similar issues that I feel like one of the herd. Its intimidating!
4. Perspective. It was really interesting to hear cancer through different points of view. Listening to the first woman, I could relate to watching someone else’s cancer story through my volunteer work at camp and other people in my life effected by cancer. She said she always made time for herself through exercise- running is my saving grace! I could also really identify with the second woman for taking her diagnosis in an objective way. Separating emotions from the facts and going through the motions before attaching any feelings to the situation. Clearly, I can’t relate to the third woman who had 5 different cancer battles and is now stopping treatment. Although I can begin to relate to the spiritual journey she embarked on- but on a much smaller scale. I could somewhat informally relate to the fourth speaker- I do work at camp sunshine and for a long time I wanted to be a pediatric oncologist with and emphasis on holistic care (kinda like Patch Adams- without the depression and malpractice accusation).
5. Support. The four women who spoke all agreed that you need support. Someone to go to appointments with and friends to talk to about cancer, life and anything else. The lines of communication need to go both ways though. Just because you have cancer, doesn’t mean that trumps other peoples problems. Friendships should be real and discuss all of life’s issues.
6. No Longer Normal. Remission does not mean “resume normalcy”. Your life will never be the same. Even if the everyday things don’t feel any different, the bigger picture is. This is one moment in your life where you really do come first and you can be as selfish as you need to. Real friends and family who love you will understand and “come out of the wood work” for you but know that you’re still their to listen to them when they need their own support. Anyone who tried to steal your cancer thunder to make it about themselves in any way is someone who should be promptly kicked out of your life. I know in the grand scheme of things, my life will never be the same- and that’s a good thing. I don’t think I would think the same if I didn’t have cancer.
It’s always nice to hear people’s stories, the good and the bad- because it’s real.
Stay warm everyone! I’m on a knitting/homework/Netflix binge!
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”