Tuesday, December 27, 2005

December 27, 2005 - Cancer on My Mind

"You have a life-threatening disease that requires your IMMEDIATE attention. At this moment, there is NOTHING more important than stopping EVERYTHING else that you are doing in order to consider this." Those words come from a little book I’ve been reading, From This Moment On: A Guide for Those Recently Diagnosed with Cancer, by Arlene Cotter (Random House, 1999), p. 15.

"I’ve been aware that I’ve had cancer for every hour of every day of the eight years since my diagnosis." That’s the witness of NHL survivor Dr. Elizabeth Adler, in her book, Living With Lymphoma: A Patient’s Guide (Johns Hopkins, 2005), p. xii. (By the way, that’s the most helpful book I’ve found on lymphoma, generally. It was recommended to me by our friend Don. Written by a neurobiologist who contracted NHL herself, it’s got a powerful, one-two punch of personal testimony and very detailed medical information.)

Drop everything. Think of nothing but your disease. That’s the wake-up call for the newly diagnosed. Yet, if Dr. Adler’s experience is any guide, the diagnosis continues to be life-changing, even years later.

Perhaps Dr. Adler’s claim has a bit of hyperbole to it, or maybe I’m just different from her, but I wouldn’t say I’ve spent every waking hour thinking of the disease. This has been particularly true at Christmas, as there have been many joyful family gatherings to distract me – not to mention my pastoral responsibilities in planning for three services on Christmas Eve and one on Christmas Day. Yesterday I spent more than two hours in a movie theater, watching The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with the family. I can’t say I thought about lymphoma a single time during that film, nor on the drive to and from the theater, either. It was wonderful, escapist entertainment. It would be accurate to say, though, that cancer has been at least a daily, often several-times-daily, reality in my thinking. It’s hard to get away from it.

Is this constant, almost obsessive thinking part of the disease process, or part of the healing process? There’s a whole spectrum of responses, I suppose: between obsessing over illness, on the one hand, and being appropriately engaged with the work of healing, on the other.

Everything I’ve always heard from cancer experts says the patient’s mental state is crucial. The most important thing may be not so much whether we’re thinking about our illness, but how.

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