CANCER SURVIVORSHIP AND THE ART OF LETTING GO

I have a daily calendar on my desk with very wise sayings.  One that really stood out was by J.C.Watts.  “It doesn’t take a lot of strength to hang on.  It takes a lot of strength to let go.”

     I had to think about this for a minute. We have all seen cartoons and pictures on Facebook and in newspapers of a animal – usually a cat – “hanging on” a ledge – sometimes just waiting until Friday!  This looks hard when you are barely able to use your fingernails and digging in.  So what does this have to do with being a cancer survivor?

     We immediately hang on in every way that we can after being diagnosed.  We are fighting for our health and our lives. We do not accept that we will not win this battle and hang on for dear life.  And we are applauded for it by our medical family, our family and our friends.

     We hang on through the initial diagnosis.  We hang on even harder through the horrible treatments including radiation, or chemo, or surgery, or all of the above.  We sure hang on to our loved ones harder than before, because they are so precious to us.  We hang on to our life seeking normalcy, and desperately want everything like it was before.

     So why do I talk about letting go and where is the courage in that? Because every one of the people I know, who have had any type of serious illness such as cancer, says life is never the same.  We have faced the prospect of dying and it will change us forever. I get e-mails from all over the country from people who have left their jobs, retired early, moved to a place they always wanted to live, and traveled.  But they had to let go on their previous life to embrace the new one.

     Many of us have lingering side effects and fatigue after treatment from cancer that we cannot deny, and in some cases will never diminish or go away.

      I was forced to give up two part time jobs I loved because of chemo and fatigue.  I fought, I cried and my wise doctor finally made the decision for me to leave teaching because of a compromised immune system.  However, if I hadn’t given that up I couldn’t have gotten two books and many articles published.  I would be grading tons of papers instead.  I had to let go to embrace my new profession.

     I also had to let go of being around anyone who is ill, visiting hospitals, nursing homes and sick people.  I cannot now be part of the “Pay It Forward” program that is being promoted by Cure.  This program encourages people who have survived cancer to reach out and help people who are newly diagnosed and in shock like we once were.  With a PhD in counseling, I would have been able to do this and love it!  I sadly informed the professionals who asked me to do this I couldn’t do it.  I am on the Patient Advisory Council at my hospital where I receive treatments. These wonderful people wisely put me on another project I could do.  I have been to several meetings with the architects and staff while helping with suggestions for making our new cancer center user friendly for patients.  It has been a fun new project and I am learning a lot! It took a wise and compassionate staff to figure out what I can do, and I accepted the challenge.

     Fatigue has made me give up many activities.  However, there are new adventures such as joining a book club, being on church council, and sending cards to people at my church that I can do and enjoy it immensely.

     Finally, my last decision is the Living Will.  Everyone knows I do not want resuscitation or heroic efforts to stay alive.  I want to let go and hopefully be in a better place without undue suffering.  This is unfortunately a choice we all have to make, but cancer survivors have to decide a little sooner.

    So – hanging on is good.  This enables us to get through tough times.  But we also need to figure out when to let go.  The greatest part of these decisions is that often the next step or place we find ourselves is better than anything we ever dreamed of!