Living With Cancer Without Letting It Define Me
Last week a friend of mine messaged me, asking how I was. I had just had some tests and another treatment for my third recurrence of cancer and he wanted to check in.
I’d met my friend when we were both serving on a public affairs steering committee, affiliated with the National Cancer Institute. I was working at the Indiana University School of Medicine and he was at the City of Hope Hospital in Southern California. During the time we served together, I developed breast cancer for the second time, in 2008, after a 25-year hiatus from my first diagnosis. Four years later, my breast cancer metastasized and I began an innovative treatment path that included proton therapy to my skull, followed by monthly injections to prevent the cancer from forming in my other bones and organs.
In response to my friend’s query, I shared that a recent event had led me to believe that my cancer was once again asserting itself. I had terrible pain and thought it was my cancer reappearing. Instead it turned out a tooth had abscessed near the site of my previously treated cancer. When I learned that, the huge anxiety I had been feeling for the past two months suddenly lifted.
What a sad misinterpretation on my part! The experience woke me to the danger of misreading problems and attributing them to my cancer. Of course, health problems will arise that are not going to be related to this cancer. Shouldn't I have realized that? They're not unlike other types of problems in life. But more importantly, I realized how many hours I had spent in worry rather than creating and planning for the important things I want to do -- like spending time with family and friends, and doing meaningful work.
I also realized that while I've been consciously working to keep cancer from ruling my life, I've let it rule my responses to all my health issues. While I've often dismissed it as part of my life, I've let it rule my head. If I that can accept that it's only one part of my health, but not all, I can better work with it.
In his autobiographical book of essays about his father's and then his own struggle with cancer, the New York Times writer Anatole Broyard urges that “there are many ways a sick person can divert and define, maybe even transcend himself."
Cancer plays a significant role in my health, but it doesn't represent everything about my health--or my life--and there's so much more to me than my cancer. I've come to recognize that I need to own it without it owning me. Instead, I find it can fuel my desire to create good works that help others.
I'm planning a trip abroad this fall, and I accept the possibility that my cancer may reappear and need more aggressive treatment, possibly impacting my plans. But I'm okay with that; it's not going to keep me from planning to go. I want to see England with my husband and celebrate a close friend's child's marriage. As the cancer is part of me, it goes with me. But, I need to focus on what I really want to do -- planning and sharing experiences with my family and friends, seeing parts of the world I've always wanted to see.
My physician advised when she started caring for me during this illness, "go out and do what you care about." I am learning to do a better job of following her advice. And when my cancer reasserts itself, I have loved ones, great doctors and supportive friends to help me create the playbook to deal with it.
Pamela Perry works with her son, a photographic and mixed media artist. She serves on the boards of the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, the Indiana Medical History Museum and the St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf. She is coordinating the Conversations About Cancer series with WFYI, in connection with the PBS documentary Cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. Pamela previously worked as director of public and media relations at the Indiana University School of Medicine.