That is the best advice I received as I started out on the cancer road last spring. It might sound like hollow advice to you, something a person tosses around casually these days, but it truly gave me something to hang onto during the worst days. Rather than being an idiom on a plaque in my home (which it is not), this advice became my mantra.
In 2020 we were struck with a plague that has, so far, killed almost 400,000 Americans of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. Just a few days into the news of the coronavirus and the realization that we weren’t just going to have to shut down for just two weeks, I was at my doctor’s office getting a lump checked out. I found it during a self-exam. It was large and immovable. Not good. I’d like to say that things moved swiftly after that, but I had to deal with more tests, more doctors, and the insurance company. It was almost two months before I started chemotherapy. During that time, I was anxious and impatient. I didn’t sleep much. I devoured several books about breast cancer and ordered more about patient stories. I wanted to be as prepared as I could be.
When it came time for that first day of chemo (May 20, the day after my birthday), I was very anxious. My blood pressure was high, and my ears were ringing. I felt as though I were outside my body as I walked into the cancer center. Worst of all, perhaps, was the fact that I could have no one with me. In the movies and in the memoirs, everyone has friends or family members with them. There are hugs and tears and lots of handholding. Now, I have always prided myself on being strong and independent, so I had no doubt I could handle whatever I had to handle, but this seemed like a particularly cruel twist of fate — cancer during a pandemic. I would truly have to walk this road alone.
The first day was a bustle of activity. I was to receive two chemotherapy drugs: Adriamycin (aka, the Red Devil) and Cytoxan. Along with those two bags of chemicals, which required the nurses to wear protective gear, I was given intravenous Prevacid, Benadryl, and steroids. Those premeds went in first, followed by the bags. The nurses were explaining all of this to me while other people from social work and administration came and went. It was the social worker who gave me that sage advice.
She is a woman with curly, salt-and-pepper hair who has a pleasant smile. She sat with me during a good portion of the treatment, talking about my cancer, my living situation, and my fears. She reassured me that I could do this hard thing, and then she said, “The worst thing you can do is to think too far ahead. With cancer, no one really knows how it will go, but you’re in good hands. Try to stay positive, and stay in the moment.”
That is a phrase I had heard many times over the years, first as part of meditation and mindfulness practice, and then from a million t-shirts and plaques. The words, after a while, became empty. After all, how can you stay in the moment when your job requires you to plan and set goals, to think ahead? How can you stay in the moment when you have dozens of appointments for everything from doctor appointments to dog grooming? Don’t you have to think of all those things?
But what I found is that I hung onto those words of advice. Every time I caught myself thinking about the percentage of recurrence or the stage progression or how sick I might be after a given treatment, I envisioned the social worker’s face and her saying, “Stay in the moment.” I would then be able to return to my current situation. I began to make friends with the staff, who are simply amazing and kind, and I began to try to find the joy in every single thing.
One thing you will find when you practice mindfulness is that you go easier on yourself. You’re not constantly thinking of all those things you wish you could do over or erase completely from your past. You’re not constantly planning or getting anxious about something that hasn’t happened yet. You just are. You can enjoy watching the trees swaying in the wind. You can stop and chat for a moment with a fellow patient. You can make someone’s day with a bit of humor or a compliment. Soon, chemo days didn’t feel like the worst days of my life. They felt like I was going to see some friends who were going to make sure I was cared for. I don’t know what it’s like to have friends or family with me during chemo, but I do know what it’s like to get to know your nurses and learn about who they are. I’ve talked to them about their families and their pets. I’ve asked them about where they want to go on vacation when the coronavirus pandemic is a thing of the past. I’ve let them see me shed a tear or two when I’m having a bad day. I was able to do these things because I didn’t live in fear. I lived in the moment.
When I was leaving the cancer center a few days ago after getting my Herceptin infusion, I felt a little tug of nostalgia. During chemo, my son would drive me to and from the center. Sometimes we would grab an early dinner on the way home. The steroids made me hungry on the day of infusion, and then I wouldn’t really want food for the next few days. I took advantage of the moments when I was hungry. Coming out of the building into the twilight, I felt that little tug and wished he were sitting there in his little white SUV, ready to grab a burger with me on the way home. But then I reminded myself that he wasn’t there because I was better. I was past chemo and just getting the antibodies for my type of cancer now.
I pulled my coat closer around me as the wind picked up and stirred the chill in the air. As I walked to my car, I felt “in the moment”, and the moment was good. One step closer to NED (no evidence of disease).
The video below is something I made for my sister so she could see what my chemo days were like. I was halfway through my 16 rounds. I’m glad I did this, because I don’t really think about those days now. Now I’m ready for the next stage – radiation.
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