“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” – Martin Luther King
As winter passes and spring unfolds I think of this time a year ago. On the first day of spring last year my husband Harlan and I finally took the little white holiday lights down from the bushes in front of our house. They looked magical when we put them up at Christmas. We had just gotten married four months earlier and we were full of hope and plans for our new life in our new home.
In January, 2013, I was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. As we met with doctors and began to understand what we were in for, the lights became a talisman for me. I did not want to see those lights go out. They seemed a beautiful way to keep the darkness at bay, literally and metaphorically, at least for a little while. But by the end of March I had finished my chemo and radiation treatments. There was more light each day and the spring air smelled like new life and possibility. It was time to learn to live with cancer.
Nothing can prepare you for the day your doctor looks you in the eye and tells you that you have cancer. Few words have the power to cause such visceral fear. In my case, I stayed calm. This led friends and family to say to me, “Jennifer, you’re fearless!”
I’m not fearless, of course. We all have fear, but we can find ways to fear less. Taking fear out of the equation, even a little bit, enables us to think more clearly, make better decisions and feel that we have some measure of control in the midst of chaos.
Here are three things that help me to stay strong and fear less:
Saying it out loud
When I was first diagnosed I wasn’t sure how to tell people that I had cancer. A friend proposed that I avoid specific detail and simply say I’d be out on medical leave. But I thought, no, I want to call it what it is. I have cancer. Stage IIIB non-small cell lung cancer. And no, it’s not from smoking.
When I tell people, I receive empathy and offers of help. In many cases when someone learns the exact nature of my illness I receive specific, relevant and useful information or advice.
Playing to my strengths and asking for and accepting help
The first step is recognizing your strengths and accepting help where you need it. It can be difficult to ask for or accept help. In our jobs, in the home, even in our friendships, we are often accustomed to taking care of others.
I’m an extremely organized person and for me it is comforting to create lists and spreadsheets to manage the flood of cancer-related information. I am not, however, anyone’s idea of a domestic goddess, so I gratefully accepted when friends offered to arrange a meal caravan during the months of my chemo and radiation. By relinquishing responsibility for some activities I was better able to focus on dealing with my cancer without feeling overwhelmed.
Remembering that knowledge is power
Knowledge is power but the internet is a double-edged sword, with too much information to absorb and much of it not pertinent. Organizations such as the Lung Cancer Alliance provide thorough and thoughtful resources, designed to help patients and their loved ones deal with cancer at every phase.
I am fortunate to work with a team of knowledgeable and responsive medical professionals, and I’ll be forever grateful for their counsel, candor and kindness. Additionally, it’s a great help to me to talk with people who have my kind of cancer, who’ve have had my kinds of chemo (cisplatin and etoposide) and who struggle with the severe side effects of the medication I currently take (Tarceva).
Getting advice from professionals, talking with people who have what you have, finding local resources – these are all critical steps for building a support network that can help minimize our fear.
I’ve been living with cancer for a year now. There are days when this beast of a disease lays me low, but those days are the exception not the rule. Most often I am able to think clearly about my situation and not let fear cloud my judgment. We can all live life more fully when we learn to fear less.
Jennifer Glass was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer in January, 2013. Watch Jennifer’s Fear.Less video here. Her column, “At the Top of My Lungs: Living with Lung Cancer,” is published on Parade.com and The Huffington Post. See more from Jennifer at www.facebook.com/jenglass01.
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