Sunday, May 26, 2013

Anger Management

I had a very distinct and clear thought as I headed into Boston on Thursday morning. I didn't want to be surrounded by cancer. I didn't want to hear from other cancer patients or  survivors; I didn't want to read fellow cancer bloggers. I just wanted a cancer holiday. 

A day off.

The problem is: I was on my way to work at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Avoiding cancer was sort of impossible. So I did the next best thing. I meditated for a few extra minutes. And by meditating, of course, I mean running. 

After a good long run along the Charles River and back past the Boston Marathon memorial, I went to work where I read about cancer survivors, edited stories about platelet donors, and talked about our content plans (which, of course, is all cancer related). It was all fine. But for the past few days I've been wondering why I had that reaction.

I was tired, sure. But there was nothing to trigger it. I'm more than three months removed from the post-chemo steroidal roller coaster; I'm feeling better than I've felt in a while; running more than I have in three years. And, through this blog and elsewhere, I've largely come to accept the cancer part of my identity. Why Thursday did I suddenly want to twist, squirm and run from it? 

My blogger friend Tara talked in a recent post about anger, and it got me thinking, I've never really been angry about my diagnosis. Anxious, scared, annoyed, sad, frustrated, defiant, grateful to an extent. All those things. But angry? Well, not at the cancer. 

Could it be that for almost two years -  through watchful waiting, scans, treatment, and now post-treatment - my anger's been like a giant pot of water on low heat, warming but never reaching full boil? That occasionally a bubble will surface in the form of a disproportionate reaction to a kid's action,  an uneven response to an argument, a lack of tolerance to an inconsiderate act? 

Could my feeling on Thursday have been a bubble -- or a warning that a full boil is on its way?

I acknowledged in my last post that anger is darkness. To be honest, I wasn't sure why I wrote that. I felt it, but I wasn't sure where it came from. And it comes from here: the shadow of cancer can be full of anger and it can cast darkness over otherwise light times. And cumulatively, with each bit of anger that surfaces, it adds to the darkness and casts a pall over life.

Life should be full of light. Life with a healthy (yes, healthy) family, complete with two good kids should be overflowing with light. With so much light that it's hard to see. When I feel a bubble rising, that's what I need to remember.

When things are going well, the remembering is easy, but when adversity -- in all its shapes and sizes -- strikes, the remembering is hard. I wrote most of this post sitting on the floor in a dark corner of a hotel room that we were calling home for a Memorial Day weekend soccer tournament. Stacy and the boys were sleeping, or attempting to do so. 

It's been a fun weekend, but it's been full of sub-optimal sleeping arrangements, sub-sub-optimal weather conditions, and a few sub-optimal games as Matty's team is playing "up" against stiffer competition. Which is all to say that I've needed both a steady stream of coffee and frequent self-reminders that life is full of light. 


Friday, May 17, 2013

10 More Things I've Learned From Cancer

A couple months back, I posted this list about what I've learned from cancer. It's now been more than three months since my chemo ended; more than two years since I began the trip down biopsy road which would end with my follicular lymphoma diagnosis. 

Along the way I've gone from anxiety and awkwardness (about disclosing my diagnosis) to understanding and openness, passing through a variety of states -- denial, ignorance --on my way there.

One constant has been learning. So before my next three-month check up in June, time for another list of what I've learned from cancer.

1.  Maybe it's just me, but there seems to be a paradox among cancer survivors: we celebrate our successes quietly and we celebrate other survivors' successes loudly. Maybe it's that I don't want to jinx my own success, but the further removed I am from the inner circle of diagnosis, the more comfortable I become using words like "cancer free" and "congratulations.'

2. Every season in New England is the best season. I thought that before my diagnosis and I feel it more strongly now. It's not that I'm enjoying each season as if it's my last -- far from it. It's almost as if I'm enjoying each as if it's my first.

3. Anger is the most useless of all emotions, but passion and anger often get confused. Anger comes from darkness; passion comes from light.

4. Here's another cancer paradox: every cancer is different yet many cancers share similarities. No two people will present exactly the same, but on the biological level, understanding the similiarities of cancers -- not just of one particular cancer, but of cancers even of different origin, is one of the keys to unlocking treatments and cures.

5. There are few things better than watching a kid who has struggled at something, and really tried to get it, finally get it. Doesn't matter if that something is hitting a baseball or understanding quadratic equations. It's great when it clicks.  (Okay, in truth, I didn't need cancer to learn that one.)

6. It's amazing how much research is going on into new drugs, new approaches to treating lymphoma, and in particular NHLs like follicular lymphoma. But every time I read about the "promise" of this or that approach, I want to scream: "Stop promising. Start delivering." It can be maddening how long it takes for drugs to get to market. Sometimes I feel like it's a race between drug discovery and indolent lymphoma growth.

7. Knowing you have cancer every day is different than thinking about your cancer every day.

8. Cancer sucks. No doubt about it. But smiling helps. So does laughing. It's hard to be angry, nervous, anxious or any other negative emotion if you're laughing. It's as if your mind is occupied with the laughing and it crowds out the other emotions. 

9. There's a lot of talk about defensive medicine and over testing, and the burdens it puts on the health care system. But if my primary care physician didn't continually chase my initial complaint about a swollen lymph node that wouldn't go away, my lymphoma would have grown and grown until... who knows. 

10. Don't worry about seizing the day, just seize the moment. That's good enough. The next scan, the next blood test, the next appointment is months away. It's tempting to want to rush to turn the pages in a calendar to mark the weeks, months or years in which we are in remission, cancer free, surviving. But it's better to live the days than count them.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Bright Light of Cancer

It seems like a lot of my cancer blogging friends are stepping back. Some that were blogging regularly are doing so less so; others have turned the spotlight away from cancer, or even health, and others still, have flipped the light off and closed the door behind them.

I understand it.

I've written about how often I should blog, and if you closely examine the content of the blog over the past month or so, I seem to have veered slightly away from writing about  my thought process and mental health as it relates to cancer. My last post didn't even mention cancer or lymphoma -- but then again, if you examine the early posts, I stayed away from the big C word. Denial? Fear? It wasn't accidental. As a writer, I usually think carefully about word choice so it couldn't be coincidence that a blog called,Thinking Out Loud: A Cancer Blog, didn't mention the word cancer. Most often, I would use the term, my diagnosis.
I'm comfortable now talking about my lymphoma, my cancer. But it comes at a time when my cancer doesn't have much to say. The chronology of a cancer crisis progresses like a nova. The intense light builds and builds, bursting to the forefront of your identity with such blinding brightness, that it obscures all other elements.

All you can see -- and all, you fear anyone can see  -- is that white hot light of fire. The rest of your identity exists; it just seems invisible to those who can see that explosive brightness. This is why so many struggle with who to tell, and who not to tell. If I tell this person I have cancer, will they still be able to see me.  Or will they just see the cancer?

But here's the thing about novas: they slowly return to their original state. Their brightness fades, and the rest of your identity seemingly shines more clearly. It's not that I have less to say about cancer, it's just that the bright light of cancer has faded. For some cancers -- those with legitimate cures, it may fade to black, leaving only a residue of light. For the more chronic cancers, the light will stay softly on in the background, pulsing with activity from time to time. 

As the light grows stronger, it will be reflected here. And when we have found a definitive cure for follicular lymphoma -- not a push-it-into-the-background-and-wait-for-it-to-return treatment, but a god's honest, it's-not-coming-back cure, then perhaps both in my identity, and in this blog, cancer will fade to black.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

My Quiet Space

Torn between writing about running or not writing, I'm going to write about running. Or at least I'm going to start by writing about running, again. I've found out during these past two months as both my frequency and distance has increased how important running is to my well-being. Yes, the exercise has been great and the shirts that didn't fit so well at the height of steroids and post-chemo carb-loading now fit a bit better. 

What it really comes down to is that running is my quiet space. No email. No social media. No phones. No people. Just me and my music. The cliche often portrayed in commercials, books and movies is the runner's epiphany. Lace up the shoes. Take a few strides and answers to vexing problems crystallize. That never happens. Not to me, at least. 

My mind wanders a lot when I'm running. It thinks about the lyrics of the music playing; it observes the surroundings; it usually grouses a bit about the lack of friendliness of other Boston runners (the runner's courtesy wave is all-but-never acknowledged on my Boston runs, and always acknowledged on my Barrington runs); maybe it bounces a bit from how to phrase an email or what to say to a colleague; it thinks about how to run a baseball practice; perhaps a couple of ideas will float in for a future blog post.   and often, it calculates how far it is to the next turn, the upcoming section of run, how its body feels, and the pace of the run. It's rare that I even think of cancer, or my cancer, unless it's done with a little bit of n attitude. And after my mind's processed all that, I have a mile done and four more to go.  

Then a wonderful thing happens. 


Because for all the noise pumping through my headphones, running is my quiet space -- my meditation. It's my way of learning about myself. Because once the scattered thoughts have come and gone, and it's just me, my music and my running, my mind turns inward and stops processing tasks, and starts thinking about who I am, how lucky I am to have the life I have, and how I want to live. I almost always end runs feeling inspired and energized, not simply because I've released a few endorphins and burned some calories, but because of the quiet space I was able to inhabit for the last few miles.