ELDER MUSIC: A Bit of Jazz
Chemotherapy School

Notes on Coping with Cancer

You, dear readers - in your generosity in commending my attitude toward this cancer and my “honesty” in writing about it - have given me a lot to think about.

The thing is, however, I don't know what else I could do differently. Not that I want to make it the central experience of my life, but cancer will not be ignored so one might as well pay attention.

Plus, it is mostly a disease of age so it makes sense, at a blog about “what it's really like to get old”, to include a first-person account.

Every cancer is individual to the patient but I'm trying to - well, what? Lift the veil? Talk about the reality of my experience and let it inform people as they see fit? Or not? Maybe something like that.

Cancer is a devastating event that upends not just the life of the patient, but his or her family and friends too. It is a word so fraught that in yours and my young adult years, you might recall, it was rarely mentioned by name – or only whispered.

What I have discovered, however, is that even though having cancer can be time consuming, you do go on living your regular life – or mostly so.

After surgery recovery, when not engaged with the disease via testing, seeing doctors, organizing the prescription drugs, reading and marking up the book-size binders they give you to study for chemo, you clean house, do the laundry, shop and cook, play with the cat, see friends and neighbors, read books, watch TV, write a blog post.

That was before and then there is now and sometimes, for me, there is not a lot of difference.

As my primary care physician keeps telling me, "You're very healthy, Ronni, except for the cancer" and except for some occasional minor pain, I feel that way most of the time so that I wonder if I'm not taking this seriously enough.

Except, I haven't been able to imagine what that means or what I would do if I WERE taking it more seriously.

Reader Ian Bertram left a message on Facebook a few days ago:

”Your attitude to this is the best – everything is new so treat it as a learning experience.”

In a comment on a post here last week, Joseph Pearce left this note:

“What an amazing journey this life is!!”

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Dozens of you last week, complimented my new hair style in a photograph I posted. Joseph Pearce, who owns the salon Hair Architects in Portland, Oregon, is the stylist reSponsible for it.]

I was intrigued by Joseph's comment and we discussed it further last week at lunch one day. Joseph – who was diagnosed with leukemia six or so years ago – sees our predicaments similarly to Ian, as an adventure and maybe I'm flattering myself but I am pretty sure I was heading in that direction in my own thinking when Joseph (and Ian) clarified my thinking.

In the three months since my diagnosis, it has never been about “fighting cancer” or “beating cancer” for me. Not that I don't want to survive this but I don't know how to do those things.


With many years of schooling and more of clinical experience, it is the doctors – not I – who are qualified to do the fighting. They are the experts and I defer to their judgment in all but the smallest matters.

The treatments – surgery and chemotherapy – will or won't succeed but like Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century essayist I mentioned last week, I believe that chance and caprice rule our lives so I cede control to, in relation to the cancer, the doctors, and otherwise to the universe.

Meanwhile I am fascinated with the cancer itself, the treatment and how cancer is changing me.

How can one not change when the circumstances of life do. We expect marriage, divorce, parenthood, death of a loved one, losing a job, retirement, etc., to change us so certainly a life-threatening disease also does.

With great kindness, many of you have indicated how that these cancer posts are valuable to you. But believe me, I do not feel brave or inspiring or gutsy or amazing.

What I do feel is deeply curious about this unexpected turn my life journey has taken. It's still new to me but I am trying mightily not to make it my whole life while paying close attention too.

Montaigne again from Sarah Bakewell's book about him, How to Live, which, Bakewell says, is the closest Montaigne came to a final or best answer on the question about how to live:

”Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.”

(Sorry about all the Montaigne lately; it's just that I'm currently caught up in the Essays themselves again along with Bakewell's excellent book about them.)


Hope I word this correctly..

Ronni, you are handling Cancer the same way you handle life. You study, read, learn about a situation or event. Problems are learning and sharing opportunities. You share without telling everyone you are a "guru". You present different resources and results of studies so your readers can form their own conclusions.

And you allow readers and followers to express themselves. (Often these few lines of venting lifts a reader spirits enough to face their day.)

PS: Luv ya! , signed MissDazey

Good morning, Ronni,

Here's a book that might be of worth to you, at this time. It's called "Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes" by William Bridges. Another of his is "The Way of Transition," which was written in part with the inclusion of writings from his wife, who was with cancer at the time. I could speak with elaborateness as this book has meant a great deal to me and how I live, as he challenges basic thought patterns.

Re your curiosity and fascination with this cancer and its effects on you. Wouldn't it be worthwhile if we all approached life in that way, all the time, from which I believe we'd be more attuned and aware. Your comments reminded me of a favorite phrase from Huxley's "Island," where the speaker to the people continually reminds the people - "Pay attention." (As memory is dicey, this is very close to being accurate)

There Is a Buddhist writing that says you chop wood and carry water on your way to enlightenment. And what do you do if you achieve enlightenment? Chop wood and carry water. Life goes on. You just have a cancer companion now.

Ronni, you may not think you are "gutsy", but you are. Not many with the dire diagnosis and following treatment would be as curious and pragmatic about this illness as you are. Instead of wallowing in self pity or becoming depressed you are facing the future with curiosity and your normal daily routine as before.

You may pass it off by saying you are simply doing the necessary, but, as you say, cancer changes you. It may change your life, but you have not allowed it to change you.

Finally, someone with the courage to say that you're not "fighting cancer" or "beating cancer." No matter how much one would want to, I'd say that's akin to tilting at windmills. Yes, the doctors and nurses are doing the fighting; my part in this (as a cancer patient) is to try to keep a positive attitude and healthy habits.

I love Ian's comment - it is fascinating once you get past the shock and grief. And Joseph seems to have a great attitude.

You're a wonderful teacher, Ronni.

As usual you are doing such a great job with your posts. The sharing of life's experience is wonderful. It helps as we age to see how others too are aging. As far as cancer, have you heard of a magazine called Cure? It is the most wonderful informed place to read about all the problems we go through as patient, and as caregivers. It's free , it's unbelievable. They are on line also. Cure .com
Bet the magazine would love your story!

I so appreciate your approach, Ronnie, as it has helped shape my response to yet another friend diagnosed with breast cancer. When she called to report the biopsy had confirmed early stage cancer, I told her what I have learned from reading you. She will not like much of what comes next, but that is nothing new in life. No need for an emotional outburst on my part.

Your post today reminded me of something I read by Anna Quindlen as she spoke of loss of people, health, and other difficult life losses, "...and then we become one of those people and we are amazed. Not by our own strength, but by that indomitable ability to slog through adversity, which looks like strength from the outside, and just feels like every day when it happens to you. The older we get, the better we get at this. The older we get, the better we get at being ourselves."

Ronni, to me you are a spark that ignites. I thank you for that from the bottom of my heart.

Your mentions of Montaigne have put two new books on my reading list, thankyou! And I'm interested to hear the voice of one who, like myself doesn't feel inclined to fight life's adversities, but rather to study them, and self in relation to them. Taking on the fighter's stance feels like another burden. It's a deep topic, I don't really understand it, perhaps it's simply an individual matter. Thich Nhat Han writes that if we have self compassion all else will follow, in relation to ourselves and others.

I echo Bert, you're a wonderful teacher, opening the little and big mysteries, thereby helping us all to peek and wonder and think and share. Love to you.

Ruth, in regard to your post today, the name of the web site is "Cure Today", and it seems to be a wonderful resource for contemplation of one's medical condition.

Ronnie, I do believe that time is a healer. Although you will always have what you have gone through for the rest of your life, the blow will soften as " time goes by".

Very best wishes, Estelle R.

I am loving the words you write. I am an infrequent commenter, but a constant reader.

Like you, I try to face my adversity head-on by learning about it and reading about it.

I am (currently) in remission with breast cancer. Many friends and even people who work with my husband, have given me pink this and pink that and stickers for the car and jewelry and license plate tags, and etc. You get the idea. I do not want to display these things. I have no desire to do a "march for the cure".

For me and my family, this is a private matter, and I cannot explain to others what it really means. Therefore, your gift to all of us is a way to explain the "unexplainable."

Thank you for being you...and helping all of us in many different ways...

As I read your words I just wish I had the same ability when I write in my paper journal about my husband's slow decline into dementia. Such a change in our lives, unexpected, certainly not wanted.

I am through the first year of being diagnosed, having surgery, and miraculously, not needing chemo. Yet, I sometimes find myself wondering "What is cancer REALLY?" I still don't understand the disease despite all the education I've received about it and the fact that I only have on breast. I will continue to live my now altered life (from Tom Brokaw's book) knowing I must take a pill for four more years, have regular blood tests and attend check ins with my oncologist. Except for those realities, my life remains much like it was before the diagnosis.
Thanks, I truly enjoy your blogs, Ronni. Please keep writing whenever you feel like it.

Darlene said it best today, "You have not allowed it to change you".

It is never just the doctors who are fighting cancer (and other diseases). The course or cure of any illness also depends on how we eat, sleep, and exercise, whether we take our meds and exercise--in other words, the course of illness depends on us and on those around us.

I knew that you were going to find this experience interesting.

Curiosity and humor are the two great gifts we're given, that can alchemize our otherwise terrifying lack of control over our fate into an adventure and a joke.

I recently coined an aphorism for another insight of growing old: "There's nothing you can't live without except a pulse." Of course that's a bit of hyperbole (there are a few prerequisites of a pulse, like, oxygen). I claim aphoristic license.

Love you and admire you, Ronni. Your curiosity and honesty are models for me going forward.

I have been away from the blogs for a few weeks and I'm very sorry to come back and hear that you have cancer Ronni. I've really enjoyed your blog over the couple of years I have been reading it. I hope you will find your loyal readers to be a wonderful support and comfort. It's very generous of you to continue to share your experience online.

Ronnie, here are some pearly words of wisdom you might enjoy, written by Olive Thorne Miller:

"Happily we are learning that the mind has to do with the misdeeds of the body, and that there are no more valuable therapeutic agents than cheerfulness, happiness, and hope."

Wishing you well, Estelle R.

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