This is the initial, unedited version of today’s blog post at MD Anderson’s Cancerwise Blog. (Here)
What Cancer Has Taught Me: Emotional Health Begins With Communication
A couple of hours after I received a call from my doctor, notifying me of my leukemia, I walked in the front door of my house. I saw Josh, my younger brother of five years, in the chair opposite the front door. I took another step and saw my dad on the couch immediately to the right.
I could tell by my brother’s tears that word had already gotten back to them about my diagnosis. I immediately felt I had to do something. From the deepest source of strength I could summon, I calmly shared with them the details of what I was told. I wasn’t quite sure what the diagnosis meant at the time, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was communicating to them that I’d be okay. I didn’t want my family to hurt any longer.
Cognitively, I knew the heartache wasn’t my fault, but I also knew that if I weren’t diagnosed with cancer, the room wouldn’t have been so heavy that evening. Because complex emotions give way to irrational thought, the subconscious does everything it can to convince you that you’re in control of other’s heartache and pain.
For the next few months, my family was involved in doctor’s visits and treatment progression. As my medicine started to work, and the fear of a cancer diagnosis began to recede, I reaffirmed my loved ones of the belief I shared upon diagnosis: I’ll be okay.
Meanwhile, life happened. I wasn’t aware that I didn’t know how to tangibly handle the pressures of leukemia on my own. Until this point, I had neither been billed for a doctor’s visit nor picked up a prescription that cost over twenty dollars. Like a person staring at a long hallway with many unknown doors, my only long-term plan was to do what I could in the short-term; experience everything and make a lot of mistakes.
As the wheels in my life began to shake, I noticed that my family had a sense of peace again. Because I wanted to guard them against the long and frustrating tentacles of uncertainty, I didn’t share my concerns. I felt like protecting my family from the hardships of cancer was the only thing I could control. The weight of seeing them upset outweighed the challenges I thought I’d one day overcome. My mind misinterpreted strength for preservation, and I began to subconsciously cut myself off from the only real support I had.
As life continued, I occasionally struggled with affording my medication, but I never asked for help. Emotionally, I couldn’t discern between the normal feelings of being a mid-twenties male and those of being a mid-twenties male living with cancer. Because I didn’t know anyone who had been through the same experiences, I never talked about my adversity. Consequently, I developed a bad habit of living as if I didn’t have cancer, and dealt with problems as they arrived. It became a vicious cycle.
Slowly, but surely, leukemia wrapped itself around me like a ravenous boa constrictor. Every misstep encouraged a tighter grip; every doubt fostered a selfish solution. And yet, I continued to stay silent.
Three years into my diagnosis, I began dating Katie, who is now my fiancée. By default, she took an interest in both the physical and emotional world in which I lived. She could see the heaviness of my diagnosis and was objective in her approach to expose the distance I had placed between me and everyone else. Lovingly, she began to dissolve the illogical illusion that led me to believe protection and strength could coexist in the world of cancer.
Katie helped me realize that I was doing more harm than good. Closing myself off to those who were willing to complement my weaknesses with their strengths resulted in an incurable poison. Somehow, I believed the hypocrisy of thinking I could be everything to everyone without allowing for the possibility that they could be the same for me. I learned that what I perceived to be noble was closer defined as futility.
Soon after, the constrictor that had previously begun to suffocate me soon loosened its stranglehold. I committed to vulnerability and acknowledged that cancer didn’t initiate super human abilities within me. It wasn’t my job to protect the hearts of those around me, it was my job to be emotionally healthy, to do what I could to promote vibrant, wholesome relationships. No longer was I deceived by the belief that cancer is defeated from the outside in. I knew I had to attack it from the inside out. When I accepted this, I began to feel a sense of freedom.
Being able to talk openly and freely about my frustrations with cancer has exposed me to an entirely different world I didn’t know existed. It has drawn out my strengths, inspired others who deal with different hardships, and has allowed me to participate in a more meaningful dialogue about the difficulties of being young and living with cancer. No longer do I waste energy trying to shepherd the uncontrollable. Instead, I use those efforts to enjoy the things I can control; faith, love, joy, empathy, and gratefulness.