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LymphomaPatient Stories

Cancer and Me

Brigid Wallace contemplates the choices she made when living in the “new normal” after her cancer diagnosis. She describes the struggles and personal victories that tested her faith and strength after she learned she had non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
June 2019 Vol 5 No 3
Brigid Wallace
Catonsville, Maryland

The human body is all an individual has to be able to move, think, and function. The majority of people, including me, place taking care of our bodies a high priority in the grand scheme of daily living. The body—with its complex biological systems and organs responsible for keeping us alive—is a strong, efficient, and intricate structure. Yet as strong as the human body is, it is vulnerable to various attacks at any moment.

Such attacks can be caused by a multitude of events and circumstances, controllable or out of our control. These attacks can include parasites, diseases, mental disorders, inefficiency within the biological framework, as well as personal life situations and challenges. Pivotal to bodily attacks is an individual’s self-imposed attack that can cause the body’s strong frame to crack inside and out. My story describes the disease that attacked my body.

A 6-Letter Word

“Cancer”—to hear this 6-letter word introduces connotations of despair, extreme change, fright, and death. This word has very few positive associations for patients and family members when they are sitting in a sterile doctor’s office. General reactions usually begin with the question “Why?” continuing with “How long?” followed by “What type?” and “How did this happen?” and ending with “How do I fight this?” My story concentrates on the “How do I fight this?”

Today, patients with cancer have more treatment options than 10 to 15 years ago, thanks to many years of research. But chemotherapy is often still seen as the accepted first line of defense for the treatment of the majority of cancer diagnoses.

Chemo (the abbreviated term) is enough to send patients into a panic mode. It is preceded by horror stories from other patients, denotes change to come in the patient’s life, and, most important, chemotherapy’s equal word is “fear.” Fear of the unknown effects on the patient, ranging from physical to mental changes, relationship disturbances among spouses and family members, and the not-­often-discussed transformation of the patient’s “normal.”

My Loss of “Normal”

The effects of this personal experience have severely changed my life, and the loss of my “normal” during that period has been devastating and overwhelming. The critical change in my so-called normal state caused me to question the reason of my very existence. The punch of a catastrophic illness, along with a toxic treatment regimen, exposes the inner vulnerability of the human body physically and mentally, while simultaneously shifting one’s “normal” in an unpredicted manner. This unpredictable shift results in the patient having the strength and support to push through and discover a “new normal” or drowning in the severe beating that this punch will deliver.

The patient with cancer who chooses to push and fight to rediscover a “new normal” will face challenges daily. This push-and-fight decision is one of the few positive aspects of punching back against this heart-wrenching, heartbreaking disease, which is why I decided to start with the positive choice. It is easy to allow the negative aspects of cancer to be the base of any discussion.

Negativity breeds darkness; it keeps the light out of the patient’s life. The river of negativity flows into the patient’s physical condition, mental state, and overall ability to cope and accept the demands of being a patient with cancer as the heavy fight begins.

Cancer knocked the air out of my lungs, punched me in my gut, and threw me off my sturdy foundation. My reaction to the word was every stereotypical nuisance that I had witnessed when I was a healthcare provider. It was everything people had shared with me when they faced and dealt with cancer.

The doctor talking to me and asking me questions conjured up the fear that lay in the pit of my stomach. I remember becoming physically sick with fear and emotionally overwhelmed by the unknown. I reacted at first to the “word,” not the disease. The major change that was coming had not affected me as much as the word “cancer.” It signaled a mental metamorphosis triggered by hearing that word.

The brain begins to register what the patient is hearing as it starts to embed itself in our inner being. Our body, through our mental cavern, reaches for calm, allowing the patient to settle down and really listen to the doctor’s words, as the window for making hard decisions begins to close. These initial reactions form the foundation on which the patient will choose which path to follow. It truly is a choice. Do you fight, push through it, rediscover the inner you, or do you drown, give up completely, and let cancer rule?

Lymphoma

I chose chemotherapy as my weapon. My cancer is non-Hodg­kin lymphoma, a blood cancer that affects my lymphatic system. The unique feature of this cancer is its ability to travel throughout my body, having access to me and all my components that contribute to my structure and functionality. Lymphoma is explosive, deceitful, and treacherous. It has control of my physical being, as well as my mental state. It not only changed my “normal,” it threw it away, never to return.

I prayed and hoped that chemotherapy, after the first cycle, would wipe cancer out, never to return. That hope was fear speaking in an unrealistic reality. My body shifted into a fantasy mode, shielding me from the truth, delaying my fight. I had the energy of 10 persons after the first chemo cycle on day 1. I cleaned my house, cooked enough food for 3 families, baked, washed clothes, and danced merrily, thinking that this was not what people had told me.

Sucker punched, a right clip to the jaw, was how I felt on day 3. I collapsed, left my stomach in the bathroom, while feeling the war that was going on inside my body. I cried, “Lord why me? I can’t do this! Take me away!”

Chemotherapy treatment be­came an exercise in the visual and the unseen. Visually, it became the actions of the nurses taking care of patients. The visual also included the multitude of sterile packs used for accessing surgically implanted patient ports, and silver IV poles with hanging bags of medicine. Small, medium, and large bags; covered and uncovered; and poles equipped with infusion pumps that spoke in soft and loud beeps.

Over time, my weapon turned against me, making my fight challenging and hard, very hard. My weapon turned into my enemy. The problem—the enemy was also the destroyer of the cancer inside me. It took some contemplation, but I finally understood the juxtaposition of chemotherapy. The contemplative space was the exact place I had to journey to be able to reclaim my weapon, my fight. Once there, I turned from the darkness, simultaneously realizing a pivotal fact.

Faith Sustains My Journey

My cancer journey was given to me by God. This journey is part of God’s plan for me. “Why” could not be the question that blocked my unconditional faith, or led me to forget that “God will never forsake me.” I began to stand on that solid rock of my faith and believed that all parts of this journey, good or bad, were necessary for me to do the assignment God has for me.

In this journey, I’m physically sick, my pain is excruciation, energy is non-existent, focus and concentration not there.

However, the clarity of the totality of this cancer journey makes me fight, punch down the side effects of chemotherapy, and, most important, I walk hand in hand with God. I do this walk knowing that despite the transformation that my body and my life have undergone, I will cross the mountain and behold the cancer-free beauty of the other side.

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Last modified: July 29, 2019

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