What Others Say About Death
ELDER MUSIC: Even More Hooked on Classics

Cutting Cancer Down to Size

At a Wednesday follow-up appointment, my surgeon lifted most of my diet restrictions, “as long as you don't go hog wild,” he said.

If I took that as a sign that this pancreatic cancer won't always be at the forefront of my mind – and I did - a phone conversation later the same day not only confirmed that idea but gave me the determination to make it so.

My friend, Joyce Wadler, had called to check on how I'm doing (fine, thank you). She is a long-term survivor of two separate breast cancers and of ovarian cancer and her advice before my surgery was crucial to making my recovery easier and smoother than it otherwise would have been.

Joyce is the person who told me to make a list of everything I do every day, note which ones would become difficult or impossible after surgery and figure out what I would do about them.

I would never have thought to do that on my own and I silently thanked her every day when I got home. The only important thing I missed was the cat food and water bowls which, as I showed you here, a clever neighbor figured out for me.

Joyce's first bout with cancer took place in about 1990, the others following some years later. On Wednesday when we spoke, I was curious to know, especially after three times, how much cancer still plays a part in her life.

I asked because, as you can undoubtedly tell from the number of blog posts I've written about it over the past two months, my cancer is the central circumstance of my life nowadays. But even with a long road of chemotherapy and god knows what else ahead of me, I'm already tiring of this concentrated, all-day focus every day.

I'm tired of reminding myself to take certain medications before, during or after meals. I'm tired of the work involved in keeping prescriptions up to date. I'm tired of forcing food when I'm not hungry because it is important to gain back the lost weight.

I'm also tired of arranging my schedule for at least one appointment – and sometimes more - with a doctor each week. And all that in addition to physical therapy exercises twice a day, a tai chi routine once a day and at least one half-hour walk per day.

Whew. They do keep you busy, these medical folks. But I am starting to become resentful that it takes so much time that used to be my own to do with as I pleased - and chemotherapy has yet to be plugged into the schedule.

So it was heartening that Joyce's answer to my question about how much her cancers play a part in her life today is “not much.” That's what I want too and I want it sooner rather than later.

Joyce's “not much” has spurred me on to work out how I can cut cancer down to size so it's not my entire life.

In my case, for as long as I live there will be cancer doctors - for chemo, for regularly-scheduled scans to check on the cancer's development up or down, for other checkups. But in between I would like to just live in every other way that doesn't involve personal cancer awareness.

Maybe I can think of the medical appointments as visits with old friends. I like the physicians and their nurses and other assistants a lot and I already look forward to seeing them – just the not the topic of conversation.

Or maybe I can fit those visits in like I schedule a hair cut – a chance for some interesting conversation with a friendly professional I trust that doesn't impinge on my life in between.

And, too, further recovery should improve my appetite and I'll gain more expertise in tracking those pesky medications, so all that should help loosen cancer's hold on my mind.

I clearly recall, with Joyce's first cancer diagnosis so many years ago, that she either started or increased her sessions at the gym. She had to be strong, she said then, to get through the coming treatment. She worked hard at it and my memory of her determination then along with her advice on prepping my home for post-surgery and now her “not much” are my inspiration to keep cancer from defining me.

Joyce has written two books about her cancer, My Breast and Cured, My Ovarian Cancer Story (Plucky Cancer Girl Strikes Back) which are available at the usual book sources around the web.

You can also read Joyce's newspaper column, “I Was Misinformed”, which appears regularly in The New York Times. Hint: Like me, she often writes about the joys - and not - of growing old but she is much funnier than I am.

Comments

We walked into the hospital linking arms like it was our first day of school in a new city. We walked by empty wheelchairs, patients entering, leaving. The antiseptic wall hand wash dispensers.

Above us, signs told us the truth. Oncology, blood work, emergency. We kept our arms linked. Focus. Halfway down the hall, a senior volunteer was sorting donated books. He smiled at us. We smiled back and continued walking to the Oncology area, an oasis inside a sprawling Montreal hospital.

My friend handed the receptionist her Medicare card. We were told to wait. We sat on chairs alongside a row of patients. We opened our backpacks, took out books and pretended to read. I glanced at the other patients.

Wondered how many times they had sat in this place. We were called in, and chose a bed nearest the window. There were three smiling ceramic frogs on the window ledge and a wooden bird house clung to a metal pole outside in the November chill.

I stared at the frogs. I stared at the bird house. A smiling nurse appeared and calmly explained the procedure. Blood, weigh in and chemo. Suddenly everything outside that window meant nothing.

Everything was about now, this, and bargaining with whatever force put us on earth, to survive this new thing.

So far so good.

XOXO

Your Montreal Fan

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As always, I am inspired by the musings of your mind and the generosity of you heart to share your ideas with your online friends. Even though you want to down size the amount of room cancer is taking in your life (very interesting notion), both you and my dear friend, Claudia, still take a lot of room in my prayers. All the best, dear heart. XOXO Lia

Doctafill, you took my breath and any thinking away, as I had vivid pictures from your sensitive, lovely writing.

Ronni, Joyce Wadler is one of the most entertaining writers around, in my book.

And while there's not much funny about what your experience is with this cancer, may you walk with the support of your readers. Some are considerate of your every step and thought, others are making faces and jokes to relieve any tension, while some are skipping or dancing down the hallway to keep the tears and fears away.

Boy, you sound like the ideal patient, so keep up the full-on attention to your body and mind.

I've found managing doses, appointments etc much easier with an app that you can get online to download to your phone. Check out Dosecast.

I am so happy to hear that you had a sensitive and knowledgeable mentor to help guide you through this process. Kudos to Joyce for being there for you and kudos to you for following the advice of the professionals.

A serious illness (and yours is the most serious of illnesses) can become the center of your life. It is exhausting and time consuming. Eventually I hope this time will seem like a bad dream and will be behind you.

Your attitude in dealing with it is still so good that I know you will weather this bad time in your life. Stay strong.

What an organized and thoughtful person your friend Joyce is and how wise you were to ask for her advice. It's wonderful that you are to the point of wanting to oust cancer from the central focus of your mind. Best wishes!

It sounds downright healthy to me that you are tired of the routine of being sick. Not that you can disregard the regimen, that would be tempting fate, but that your spirit wants something else. Sometimes I feel that way just about being old. I used to spend most of my time in my studio and garden, now, having been slowed by age and health issues, the background of upkeep of house, land, car and me has become the foreground. Mostly it's fine, I am happy. Occasionally I rebel, at least inwardly. Today, I loosely imagined a large painting that presently I don't have the "arm" to actually do. And the very thought itself brought me great joy. Perhaps happiness is a choice?

Ronni, I'd love to tell you about a senior exercise program I stumbled across that has changed the lives of so many people. No need to go to a gym when you already have a heavy schedule. All exercises are done at home via videos sitting or standing...nothing on the floor. There is a free senior challenge posted on the website that gives you an idea of what the program is like, but I highly recommend joining the Founder's Program for the added materials. There is no set fee...it's pay what you can afford beginning with $20 w month. The two young men who founded this program are wonderful and genuinely serious about helping senior citizens regain and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Sorry so chatty but I can't say enough about them. They have a FB page if you want to read the comments from members on how this works for them. It's called Grow Young Fitness. Wishing you much health!

I went through the same thing after my surgery. It seemed everything I thought about or did was cancer related. But once you get through all the treatments, it does get better. The appointments get farther apart, you start thinking about other things again. I was even somewhat at a loss without all the appointments filling my calendar and dictating my schedule. Even the prescriptions become easier to manage. Many will go away. The rest I handle with those 7-day pill boxes, one for morning meds, one for evening. I go for weeks now without cancer even crossing my mind, though I sometimes check my calender to see when I get to (not have to) see Dr. K again. Be patient. It takes more time than we want to give it at our ages, but it does happen.

Your friend is a treasure! This is one of the most helpful & caring posts you have done. Brav0. Ronnie & BTW you are a treasure as well. Sending positive energy all the way to Oregon. Dee:):)

What a lovely batch of comments! Helpful, encouraging, affirmative - just what the doctor ordered!

One of the benefits of age has to be that we're aware that spending too much time in fear and apprehension is a waste of what time remains. Love the graphic at the top of today's post!

So glad to hear about your state of recovery.

A former co-worker is about to finish up with chemo for breast cancer. She is scheduled to begin a Chemo Recovery program, which involves 3-4 visits to help speed her recovery. Sounds like something a patient wants to know about before entering chemo.

Best wishes.

So nice to see the purple ribbon supplanted by a hopeful cartoon. At least for this post. But isn't that the way -- the darkest days alternating with the hopeful.
In keeping with that theme, a belated quote on death by Diana Athill - from Somewhere Near The End - written when she was over 80.

"If, flitting in and out of our awareness, there are people who are beginning, to whom the years ahead are long and full of who knows what, it is a reminder - indeed it enables us to feel again - that we are not just dots at the end of thin black lines projecting into nothingness, but are parts of the broad many-coloured , river teeming with beginnings, ripenings, decaying, new beginnings - are still parts of it just as these children being young is, so while we still have the equipment to see this, let us not waste our time grizzling"

Athill's latest book - Alive, Oh - was written when she was over 90. She still appears to be going strong. Perhaps a positive philosophy Does help!
Bestest, Ann

Hugs, Ann

This cancer has changed you somewhat and I think for the better. You are becoming more mellow and seeing life with clearer eyes. I think this "journey" is going to work out.

Everything you write sounds familiar, makes so much sense and/or is educational. And I am so grateful for so much.

I'm one of those folks who believes that positive thinking or a positive attitude likely won't cure cancer--or heart disease, diabetes or schizophrenia. It's too easy to morph from positivity to blaming the patient (victim) if things go south. On the other hand if a little Pollyanna works, which it seems to for some, I say have at it. I don't have a clue as to how I'd confront a life-threatening illness, so "whatever works". I really try not to judge coping mechanisms--even if they seem silly or even ridiculous at first glance.

I remember some TGB'ers commenting (bragging a bit, perhaps?) over the years that, unlike most elders, they didn't need Rx meds. I always felt vaguely guilty that I wasn't one of them and couldn't diet, exercise, meditate or "visualize" my way to perfect health. Well, I couldn't then and I can't now. We each have our own way of dealing with s**t when it happens--which it does in varying degrees--and it's often a combination of strategies.

After reading this I must count my blessings that I only face 'groaning' old and a husband entering early dementia. At this point my problems are just little things compared to yours. I do wish people would quit telling me it is going to get worse. Don't they realize I know it?

With me it's about cutting wearing-out down to size. Once all the stitches et al were removed from the skin cancer removal sites, I became human again. It seemed to take forever. This year, there have been several forevers.

Here, for your Saturday amusement pages;
http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers

It's a fascinating look at a wonderful culture right here in the south. The sculptures are especially enlivening.

I agree completely, Elizabeth. A combination of strategies is the best approach, and the right combination is going to be different depending on the person and the circumstances.

The way I look at it is, there's no real downside to trying to maintain a cheerful attitude. First, if there weren't some connection between what people expect is going to happen in their bodies and what does happen, the placebo effect wouldn't be such a dratted nuisance to scientific researchers. It's complicated. There are hormone feedback loops, all sorts of things. People are working on it, and probably in 20 years a lot more will be understood.

So... there's definitely some there there. How much, well, who knows? Nobody yet. But it doesn't hurt to have whatever is there, working on your side.

Plus, worrying is no fun. When you know that worrying won't help, why waste precious time being miserable? (Though it's hard to break a lifelong habit.)

But one does have to be sensible about it, and not expect positive thinking to be a magic substitute for actual medical care.

What a treasure your blog is!!!! Has always been , but especially now. Keep on keeping on, Ronni. God love ya!!

In my opinion, Ronni, you have made the right decision in not defining yourself by your cancer. I have known too many people, mostly women who, once they had a diagnosis or had completed surgery, thought of themselves---rather proudly, I fear---forever after as cancer survivors. Not Jane the writer or Alice the Professor, but a Cancer Survivor. It makes me think of gay friends or friends of color who, unless someone else insisted on identifying them as the "thing" they also happened to be, thought of themselves always as just humans. They were so much happier and more in control than those who defined themselves or let others define them by that certain characteristic or that physical attribute or that illness. Fly your flag, Ronni, but not the flag with a purple ribbon icon---fly the one that says "Time Goes By" and pictures you throughout your life as a child, a girl, a young woman, an old lady who blogs about the social and physical and political implications of growing old.

I like her attitude and yours, too. What more can I say...except...patience...patience...patience. Keep woring -- you'll get there!

...and if woring doesn't work -- whatever that is -- just keep working & you'll get there!

This is a great approach—be careful and informed, but don't let it rule your life! It's encouraging how far you have come since the operation, Ronnie!

Husband just finished chemo and radiation and now he's working on recovery! You have helped me to have a positive attitude throughout -- thank you...

Wonderful posts and comments this week. So much insight from you and your commenters, and much that I will long mull over.

From Susan Sontag: "Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

As for death, I tend to hold a rather fatalistic "appointment in Samarra" viewpoint. Death will find us all eventually -- maybe by illness, but maybe by a car crash or a natural or manmade disaster -- even if we try to dodge it by fleeing Baghdad for Samarra.

You are showing tremendous grace under pressure by allowing us to reflect on all this through your experiences. Thank you.

Dear Ronni, it's so marvelous that you have friends like Joyce who can help you wend your way through the thicket right now and help you find the road to inner peace with all that has happened and with all that looms in the future. You have so many people who journey with you. Peace.

I have a highschool friend who has been a survivor for years. He has gotten active in the areas of awareness and legislation. It does happen and I sure hope the same for you!

Great strategy, as always. Most people who do tai chi or daily walks do it for the pleasure, and maybe you'll arrive at that point too when you kick out the cancer-dictated activities. And maybe not! Thanks so much for sharing the workings of your incisive, decisive brain on this topic — so massive that you could easily have thrown your blog away.

I have cancer too and I was just asking a fellow patient "I wonder how long this will last after I am done with it. How long till I feel connected to it and the need to connect to people who have it or HAD it. I belong to a Facebook site of Breast Cancer patients, caretakers an survivors..."Warriors as they like to call themselves"....and many are long time survivors...15 and 20 years. Yet they are on the site. I just finished chemo last week and still have surgery and radiation ahead. I, like you have been consumed with cancer appointments, cancer meds, cancer treatment, cancer conversation. I look forward to moving away from it all when I am set to finish in November.....but reading what alot of women have gone through (divorce, recurrance, loneliness, even loss of the "cancer" routine of nurses and doctors who become like family)....I wonder how long one wants to or needs to stay connected to all of it. I look to getting my old normal life back - one where I am not talking of illness or achy bones or nausea meds. I am certainly not criticizing these women because the support - even 20 years later is something they need. I just pray I can move on...and I know it will always be with fear or recurrance as my breast cancer does have a higher rate of recurrance. But I pray it won't come back. That the chapter of this book will be done and it will be one I never re-read. I hope the same for you. Cancer sucks.

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