A diagnosis of stage III lymphoma in my late 60s, and the subsequent chemotherapy, forced me to put life on hold. But I have found that there are valuable lessons to be learned from meeting this challenge.
A Diagnosis Derails My Life
My primary care physician called me to discuss this just as my wife, Ann, and I were going to finalize a new place to live. That place was to be a refuge for us as we remodeled a house for our family. It was not to be. “David,” the doctor said, “I would not be committing myself to this now.” She was right; over the next few weeks, a firestorm of tests and consultations totally absorbed my energy, along with that of my wife.
I certainly had not expected this diagnosis. Okay, I had been losing weight for 6 months, and many evenings I had very little appetite. But I had been really busy; Ann and I had spent a couple of weeks volunteering in a refugee camp in Greece, I was teaching 3 classes at my university. I exercised regularly. There was always an excuse for being tired. But one evening, after coming back from school, halfway through dinner I just lay down on the floor. The next day we scheduled a meeting with my primary care physician.
She was clear from the start that something was likely wrong—not just an unbalanced gastrointestinal tract. I was in denial, in spite of my symptoms and in spite of having lost my mother and father to cancer. The first biopsy was inconclusive, allowing me to cling to my illusions. But the second biopsy nailed the diagnosis of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (or NHL), and I started an 18-week chemotherapy regimen.
Acceptance: The Challenge of Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy has been more exhausting than anything I have experienced. Many days I spend more hours lying in bed than not. Simple errands leave me breathless. As someone who had always exercised regularly, I am no stranger to breathlessness. It hasn’t been too long since I was running half-marathons regularly. This is different; with running you get the thrill of the run, and you recover fairly quickly. With chemotherapy, there seems to be just being tired, and more tired.
All of us who deal with cancer have some picture in our minds of what we are doing. For some it is a battle, they tell me: “You’re going to beat this!” I understand the sentiment, but it is not mine. I see dealing with my cancer as if I’m body surfing in a wave that is just too strong for me. You don’t battle with the ocean. You hold your breath when you have to, you swim with the wave, and pray you have the strength and the opportunity to come up for air when you need to.
For me, the key is acceptance—radical acceptance that I’m caught up in a process that demands my whole attention, a mindful redirection of my life. In a strange way, chemotherapy helps me with this need to be completely focused on my healing. The tiredness never leaves me and is a constant reminder that I have cancer. The loss of hair, especially my beard of 50 years, is another constant reminder. Whenever I see myself, I understand that I’m not the person I was, and I will not be that person again.
As we say at school—this is at once a challenge and an opportunity. It is a challenge to accept change dictated by a disease. It is an opportunity to seek to grow in whatever healthy path is given to me.
The Man in the Mirror
I don’t recognize that man in the mirror, especially the one in the bathroom mirror. I should: I’ve been staring at him in one form or another for almost 70 years. I remember how at one time he had shoulder-length dirty-blonde hair, and a big bushy black beard. More recently, he had short grey hair and a short grey beard. This man in the mirror is bald and sports a naked chin—the medicines he is taking to heal him can take a real toll, can change him.
I don’t recognize that man in the mirror. But I’m not the only person who doesn’t recognize him—friends and family don’t recognize him on the street. Of course, not everyone expects him to look as he does. The man in the mirror doesn’t use social media very much. He didn’t use Facebook to announce his diagnosis, and he doesn’t post about the daily challenges.
I’ve tried to help him understand that it is okay to take control of who you tell what. Everybody you know doesn’t have to be informed of the intimate details of the medical treatments. But he shouldn’t hide, especially from family, especially from me.
I don’t recognize that man in the mirror. I remember another man, a real doer, always working and accomplishing things. The man in the mirror sometimes needs help just to get outside and sit in the sun. I’m trying to help him understand that life isn’t just about work: there’s music to listen to, movies to watch, books to read, and, when he has the energy, people to talk to. I’m helping him to learn that life is not just about doing, there is also value in being.
I don’t recognize that man in the mirror. He can be very difficult to talk to. Sometimes he seems very angry, sometimes very sad. A lot of times he just seems very confused and fragile. He cries easily, not out of sadness or fear, but he is often just overwhelmed. The love shown by his family, the kindness of friends, a doctor reaching out to really help him understand what he’s going through, any and all of these things can bring him to tears. I’m trying to help him understand that it’s fine to be overwhelmed; it just means he hears the love around him.
I don’t recognize that man in the mirror. But I’m getting to know him. I think he’ll be okay.