My mature reaction to my cancer diagnosis

In honour of the second anniversary of my cancer diagnosis this weekend, I was recalling my initial reaction to the news, after the utter shock and denial, that is. Once everything sunk in, I figured I was going to die, and probably soon, despite the amazing recent progress in CML chemotherapies. And so, at 48 years old, I regressed. My reasoning skills became those of a young child.

First, I stopped flossing. Behold my child-like logic: if I were going to die soon, why care if I had teeth? Hopefully they’d last until I expired, and if they didn’t, Jews’ caskets are closed anyway so no one will see.

Think about it. Nobody likes flossing, so why would I waste my now-precious time doing it? Needless to say, my next dental cleaning wasn’t pretty, and my mouth was a blood bath for days after. That’s thanks to the blood thinners and depleted platelets, rendering my gums more prone to bleeding, especially if I don’t floss. I got back on the flossing wagon after that, to my dental hygienist’s relief.

The other thing I decided, in my irrational-child phase, was to give up sunscreen. I had been quite diligent about slathering myself religiously before I had cancer, especially since one of my medications caused sun sensitivity. How did my child’s mind justify this? First, since I had cancer already, what was the chance I’d get another one? Second, I was ghostly pale and, as a makeup rejector, sun exposure was my only option. And finally, if I were going to die soon anyway, why worry about sun damage? That faulty logic lasted longer, but I recently decided it might be time to reconsider. Sadly, I’m pale again.

Despite my impaired problem solving, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I relinquished all aspects of my self care. I never stopped showering regularly and wearing clean clothes, exercising, and eating a (usually) healthy diet. I also continued to address my medical needs diligently by taking my numerous medications on schedule, showing up at doctors’  appointments, and completing all requested medical tests.

Which brings me to my recent mammogram, since I’m of that age. I’ve never much worried about my mammogram since I figure if I’m going to get another cancer, I have many other body parts more vulnerable than my boobs. (The irrational child rears her ugly head again.) I completed the procedure and received a letter from Alberta Cancer Screening telling me I was A-OK. Followed by a completely contradictory call-back letter the next day. In case you were wondering, a mammogram call back does not feel as good as an audition or interview call back.

My child-like, completely irrational reasoning failed me here, yet I only panicked briefly. After looking at one little spot for hours (I might be exaggerating a tiny bit), the ultrasound technician told me I was fine. And I reminded myself that usually everything is fine. And so, with this good news, the child in me went out to play.

small child playing on skateboard

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Here come the grown ups

About 10 years ago, J. became the assistant coach for a group of wonderful, skilled, determined, and strong teenage girls. Ill equipped to be team psychologist since I knew nothing about softball, I sat in the bleachers and cheered, hopefully at the right times. (The parents and other coaches’ wives mentored me.) Through this experience, J. developed strong bonds with her fellow coaches and with these young women, as “team” evolved into “community”. I was fortunate enough to marry into the group.

These athletes went on to win a National Championship, and, as happens with age, to grow up. They went to university, many on scholarship, and are now establishing themselves as successful professionals. Doomsayers’ predictions about this generation are not relevant here; these women are hard-working and self-supporting, and they are decent and kind. Without question, these women are more mature and grounded than I was at their age. Had J. and I procreated, we’d hope our children would be just like them. Since we didn’t, we are just happy to have them in our lives.

Part of growing up is getting married, which two of these girls did over the past two weekends, to wonderful young men. We were invited to the festivities and we enjoyed catching up with everyone.

It’s hard to describe what these women mean to us, but here’s my best example: Soon after my leukemia diagnosis, the group rallied to the rescue by assembling a lovely care package, a basket filled with delicious homemade meals and other caring, thoughtful gifts. (No small feat when you consider some of them don’t cook!) The tables had certainly started turning. The kids were becoming the caregivers.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, by the warmth these women showed us during these recent reunions, including their caring questions about my health. Yes, the elephant often comes up, even on happy occasions. Thankfully, I could report how well I had been. But somehow one discussion shifted ahead to that time when I might not be doing as well, and I said: “I’m trusting you’ll take care of J. when I’m gone.” Yes, we were at a happy celebration and I made all three of us cry. This sentiment is not one I voice often to myself or to J., let alone to anyone else. But this lovely young woman, without skipping a beat, gave J. a hug and said: “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of Momma.”

And you know what? I believe she will, I believe they all will, because that’s just the kind of people they are, just like their parents and their coaches. Yet another reminder of how blessed we are to be surrounded by such incredible support. Their sense of caring for others runs especially deep, as J. and I know. They are great friends, and they will be great life partners and some day even great mentors for the next generation. We are so lucky to be part of this enduring “chain of love”, the principle on which this amazing community was founded.

"Good works are links that form a chain of love" Mother Theresa of Calcutta

I’ve been holding out on you

In an effort to maintain a false sense of privacy, I don’t tell you everything in my blog. After I shared the story of The Penis, you probably thought there was nothing left to share. But there is.

I told all my psychologist friends that I was missing my work, and, abracadabra, a few new clients have trickled in to my office. It’s kind of nice to receive calls from anyone who isn’t a telephone solicitor, although who can resist that woman offering free cruises?

When I returned to work, I was determined to see only clients I had seen before because they were known entities, which somehow felt less scary. I decided to let that rule lapse a while back. Turns out it’s kind of nice to have the challenge of a new client. And a new client is new to me only for that first session, I realized.

It can be pretty nerve wracking to set foot in a new therapist’s office. I know because I’ve been the client myself. Will I like this therapist? Will she like me? (Don’t we all want our therapist to like us?) Will I feel comfortable with her? Will she be able to help me?

I wonder if it’s ever occurred to clients that therapists find that first session a bit stressful too, for many of the same reasons. I don’t sleep much the night before a new client is scheduled because I’m running through potential scenarios in my head. What do I have to do to help this client feel comfortable? Will my personality or approach be a good fit for him? Does the client have issues that I have dealt with before, that I have some expertise in? And what if I don’t? It’s hard to tell someone you may not be the best person for him to see.

And the end of that first session is stressful too. Will she decide she wants to come back or will I be summarily fired? Not everyone does like me, and I can accept that. We all need to find someone we feel comfortable talking to, and if I’m not that person for any client, I’d rather she find someone who is. Ultimately, I want the client to get help, since she’s identified she’d benefit from it.

I’m also nervous because I never want to repeat my disappearing act of 2012 when I became gravely ill. I’m hoping I’ll be able to warn clients well ahead of time if I plan to stop working again. I can’t promise–health is unpredictable–but I’ll do my best.

So the office door has opened a crack. Feel free to tell all your friends the doctor is back in. I’d relish more opportunities to use that rusty psychologist brain of mine. In addition to brushing up on my skills, with work I’ll have something much more interesting than my cancer to focus on, at least for a few hours each week. You can tell any new prospects they needn’t be stressed about trying me out. I’ll easily assume that anxiety for both of us.

Doctor is in

 

A psychologist’s occupational hazards

This could be me.

This could be me.

As a psychologist, the physical hazards of my occupation are few. I’m a little spacier since I’ve been ill, so I just need to make sure I don’t walk into office furniture that has been in the same place for years, spill food on myself unknowingly over lunch, or forget to do up my fly before I see a client.

But there are other intangible hazards of psychology, the most serious of which is that other people talk to me fairly easily. That’s both because I ask a lot of questions and because I’d rather talk about you than me. The sharers include clients, friends and strangers.

I don’t experience this occupational hazard as much as I used to. Not only am I working less, but my many supportive friends may be more hesitant to tell me what’s troubling them because they don’t want to “burden me”. People are funny that way: they compare themselves and think others’ challenges are greater. I fall prey to that way of thinking sometimes myself, even though I don’t think life really works that way. Something that is a small challenge for me could be a huge challenge for you.

This issue arose this morning during a visit with a friend. This friend is, like me, someone who spends a lot more time supporting other people than allowing others to support her. That’s just her nature, and I can relate. She’s been very supportive of me through my illness, but she did most of the talking today, bless her soul. I relish the opportunity to support other people even more now that I have leukemia. So many people are supporting me that I worry I’m going to lose my caring-for-others gene if I don’t use it enough.

This friend was talking about a difficult period in her life, and I was glad she felt she could share her thoughts with me. But as we parted, she spoiled the moment: she apologized for “getting depressing on me”. She’s done this before, shared openly and then apologized for “dumping on me”. I got mad at her both times. (Proof that I’m no psychologist with my friends.) So I’ve decided to write this open letter to my friend, just in case any of you ever worry you might be burdening someone with your openness:

Dear Friend:

Thank you for what you shared with me this morning. You were not dumping on me or depressing me in any way. Rather, you were helping me understand what you had been dealing with this past while. I’m honoured you felt you could trust me enough to be open with me, and it means a lot to me that you of all people would let me in. Maybe next time you could share without the apology after? You of all people know how much I dislike overapologizers like myself. Also, do you realize that by sharing with me, at some point I may feel more comfortable sharing with you in some venue other than my very public blog? Wouldn’t that be novel?

Sincerely,

Your Private Friend Annie

Sometimes psychologists aren’t the ones with the insight

Wouldn’t you expect, given my professional background, that I’d have some insight into other people? You’d think I’d make wise observations and understand why people act as they do, right? And sometimes that’s true. But more often than I’d like to admit, J. is the one in our relationship whose understanding of other people far exceeds mine. And her work has nothing to do with the counselling field.

I’m thinking of a recent example, of course. You’ve heard ad nauseum about my bruising. I’m sorry for all the repetition on this subject, but it’s unfortunately affected my quality of life profoundly over the past several months. It’s also left me looking pretty gruesome at times.

I’m going through a particularly ugly phase from all my self-inflicted injuries now. I have bruises at various stages of healing all over my legs and arms, even some on my torso. I’d post pictures so you’d understand but it’s really not pretty and I fear you’ll stop reading my blog.

Bruises or not, I decided it was time to try swimming again. It is summer, after all. And I wasn’t happy with myself for avoiding concerned women’s inquiries by not going. My return to the pool was long overdue.

Since my return, I’ve gotten a lot of inquiries and comments. I counted five last Monday and four last Friday. By the end of Monday’s onslaught, I’ll admit I got a little cranky, despite my best efforts not to. The last woman that day was particularly unrelenting and my patience was tested. Once I finally barked that I had leukemia–in the tone of “stop asking already”–she stopped in her tracks, though. I then apologized for being so abrupt, as I should have.

When I told J. about these encounters later that day, she said (listen carefully, you might learn something, as I did): “Do you realize these women may wonder if you’re being abused?” And my jaw, that of a psychologist I’ll remind you here, dropped.

What am I trained to think when someone responds evasively to queries about an injury? When a person can’t fully explain where bruises or broken bones came from, or the explanation seems implausible? I’m trained to notice this evasiveness as possible abuse. But I too have been anything but direct, just because I didn’t want to broadcast my leukemia.

I went back to the pool Friday armed with J.’s insight and found I had a lot more patience. I told those who asked, before they started pressing me, that I am prone to bruising because I have leukemia, but I dropped the anger and frustration. In most cases, I didn’t have to say much more than that. Maybe I want to choose when I share that I am sick, yet I don’t want to worry these concerned women that I might be in an abusive relationship, since I’m not.

I didn’t end up having to tell everyone about the leukemia, though. The last of these women mentioned, in passing, “Fall off your motorcycle?” I responded, “No, just got in a bar fight.” And we went our separate ways.

Maybe a t-shirt would help

Maybe a t-shirt would help.

Another anniversary worth celebrating

As a psychologist, I know that people can struggle on the anniversary of any traumatic event that dramatically affected their lives, including, for example, the death of someone close to them. I understand these reactions and have supported many people through them. I’ve had them myself occasionally.

But I was talking with a friend the other night who just reached the 20th anniversary of a very traumatic day in her life, a day that she almost died. But she didn’t. And my sense is that she celebrates not dying much more than she focuses on the fact that she might have died. Makes a lot of sense to me.

I have a fairly big anniversary upcoming in early August, although I’ve managed to forget the exact date. I’m speaking of the day I went from not having cancer to…you get the idea. (There was a lot going on at that time: emergency hospital admission, acute pain, unexplained bleeding, blood transfusions, and endless repetitions of my medical history.) I guess I could consider this upcoming period one to dread. I could relive my 7 subsequent weeks in hospital day by day–the days I recall at least–but I imagine that wouldn’t feel great.

To be honest, I did a lot of that last year. In fact, last Labour Day weekend, I even dragged J. to visit the ICU with me–funny, the ICU is open 365 days a year–so I could put some of the traumatic memories of my stay there to rest. (More on that another time.) Maybe I needed to go through that reliving process last year, but not again. It felt pretty crummy.

Rather, I’m going to focus on all the good stuff that’s happened since. Here’s my abbreviated list: 1) I’ve got my strength back; 2) I’ve gained back every single ounce I lost; 3) I’m on a chemo that’s working really well; 4) I’ve got a small part of my work life back; 5) J. and I have weathered this very turbulent storm, only to become closer; and 6) I’m still here to celebrate.

Maybe instead of focussing on the day I became a cancer patient, I’ll focus on how well I’ve done since my initial sickly hospital ordeal. The road hasn’t been easy sometimes, but most of my challenges have had little to do with having cancer. And most of those challenges are behind me now.

Not only have I not died from cancer yet, I’m still living–dare I say “thriving”?–with it. I consider that reason to celebrate, don’t you? So of course I looked it up (I’ve got a lot of time on my hands) and second anniversary gifts are traditionally cotton. Cotton? Really? Not chocolate or a trip to Hawaii?

Well, we could sure use some nice new high-thread-count sheets, especially since a good night’s sleep is supposed to be especially healing. Perhaps I’ll use my recent GST credit–another benefit of my little government allowance–to buy some. There’s nothing else I really need right now, since I’ve got my health.

Happy Anniversary printed on a colourful balloon

Glad I’m here to celebrate.

 

My best job interview ever

Woman holding "Hire Me!" sign in front of her face

I’m perfect for the job!

I ‘ve never been that good at job interviews. I take them seriously and prepare for them intensively, but I’ve never been that good at selling myself and my abilities. Salary negotiation? Forget it. No wonder I eventually started working for myself.

But when I got cancer, I hoped at some point I’d have the opportunity to share my experience in some way that could be useful to other sick people. I just couldn’t figure out how. I hope that my blog may serve that purpose, but its impact will be limited by its circulation. I still haven’t found a subtle way to say: “Read my blog. It’s all about me!”

But a few weeks back, I called Jessica Dollard, the Patient Centred Experience Advisor for the Calgary Cancer Project. Jessica wasn’t expecting my call but she greeted me warmly and suggested we meet. That’s after I stumbled through my extensive and lengthy experience in being sick. I realize now that I was trying to sell myself by pleading and grovelling.

Jessica gave me some questions to consider in anticipation of this meeting. Because I love homework, I didn’t just look the questions over; I wrote out extensive answers. And so yesterday, when we met, I got an A+ for my homework. So far so good.

Jessica seemed so glad to meet me, my homework aside, even though she knew very little about me. She felt I might have something to offer her project both because of my personal experiences within the health care system and my expertise as a psychologist. She treated me as if I were doing HER a favour. Does she not realize that this work might slow my brain from atrophying? Who really benefits here?

I didn’t even have to negotiate a salary, since there won’t be any. But I’ll have my hospital parking paid for–quite a gift given the monumental cost–and there will be snacks at meetings. I love snacks. Jessica is even willing to accommodate my low-sodium diet at meetings, which is especially gracious, since usually I just cart my own food.

I guess, since I haven’t signed a contract, Jessica could fire me at any time, but hopefully she won’t. And I trust my health won’t interfere with my participation. The new Cancer Centre is expected to open in summer 2020 and I plan to be around for the ribbon cutting.

As a psychologist, I am so lucky that I can make a difference in people’s lives. But when I got leukemia and had to limit my work, I worried I’d lost much of that potential. Maybe through this volunteer position, I’ll be able to help in a new way. I can live–for a long time–with that.

P.S. Jessica is still looking for input from cancer survivors and their caregivers. If you live in the Calgary area and would like to contribute, call her at (403) 521-3227. And don’t be nervous; she’s the nicest interviewer ever.

 

Yet another thing I’ve had to give up

My life has changed a lot since I’ve gotten sick. I barely work, I barely work out, I barely shop and I barely do housework. (Let’s be honest, I never did much housework.)

It doesn't hurt, really.

It doesn’t hurt, really.

One of the things I’ve had to give up is donating blood. I can’t say I was a regular, but I used to donate occasionally. I always felt good about it because I knew I had the potential to help someone. My need for buckets of blood products during my extended hospital stay really drove that point home. So did my recent top-up to combat my anemia. I read recently that people with leukemia can need up to 8 units of blood per week. I have leukemia and I had no idea.

Most adults are eligible to be blood donors. There are a very few exclusions, though. I guess once you have a blood cancer, like I do, you’re persona non grata at the clinic. Since I’ve got not just one but two blood disorders, I wouldn’t make it past initial screening.

I’m telling you this because J. texted me last week to tell me she was enjoying juice and cookies at the Recovery Bistro (as she named it), after her blood donation at Canadian Blood Services. J. had decided, upon hearing there’s a major blood shortage this summer, that she’d heed the call. Of course I was overjoyed to hear that J. had donated. So there she was, taunting me with her post-donation Bistro treats.

J. had tried to give blood in the past but had been sent away because she was a “slow bleeder”. (I didn’t know there was such a thing.) J. doesn’t like to fail at anything but this time she rocked it: she filled up that bag in no time at all. Within minutes, she was moved into the Recovery Bistro where volunteers offered an impressive array of menu items, including fruit cups, soup, pure juices, and deluxe cookies to name just a few. (Apparently the blood people have really upped their snack options since I last donated and received lukewarm apple juice.) No scantily clad waitresses, no 30-minute wait for a table, and no need to tip. As if that weren’t enough, the nurse told her she could eat and drink whatever she wanted and as much as she wanted for the next two days. WHO’S EVER ENCOURAGED TO DO THAT? She left with a spiffy, bright-coloured arm band, chosen to match her shirt, that proclaimed she had given blood. She returned to the office to the adulation of colleagues, who exclaimed: “Good for you! I’m going to do that too.”

I’m so very, very jealous. I want to help people, I want to go to the Recovery Bistro, I want to be able to eat or drink anything I crave for two days, and I want endless adulation from my peers. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to find other ways to meet those needs. Perhaps I could volunteer at the Bistro?

The story of The Penis

We are an all-female household, dog included. J. and I are together, as you might have realized, and poor Jelly only has some of her parts left but she definitely crouches to pee. So you might be a bit surprised to find me writing about The Penis. You might expect I wouldn’t even know what one is. I may not know much, but psychologists have been talking about phallic objects for years, so I know something. We have but one in our house that we all play with. (Before you shut down your computer in horror, recall that I am not a TMI kind of gal.)

The Penis is a dog toy, which we so named because of its general shape. We received this toy, which looks like a thin, elongated ball-less tennis ball, many years ago from a friend. It is 8 inches long and almost 5 inches around. (Are you jealous?) The Penis has become one of Jelly’s favourite toys, probably because we get so excited when she picks it up. (No, not that kind of excited. Get your mind out of the gutter.)

I don’t think much about the fact that we call the toy The Penis (except perhaps when unsuspecting dinner guests hear us doing so), but yesterday I did. You see, Jelly chose to pick up The Penis in the washroom, and was waving it around to engage me, as she often does when she’s bored. In an effort to encourage her, I said, quite loudly, “Go, Jelly! Get The Penis! Get The Penis!” This conversation with my dog was not in any way unusual except that, because it was a lovely day, the washroom window was open. This window faces our neighbour’s yard, where said neighbour often sits for hours each day during the summer.

I should tell you that Mr. Neighbour is one of the few original owners of the 1950s homes on our street. We sensed he wasn’t so pleased 12 years ago when The Lesbians moved in next door. In fact, one day a few years after our arrival, Mr. Neighbour began pontificating about his disapproval of gay marriage, at which point I asked: “With all due respect, Mr. Neighbour, you do realize that J. is not my sister?” (This was my very subtle way of telling him that J. and I weren’t just “special friends”.) Funny, Mr. Neighbour hasn’t raise the whole gay marriage thing again.

You’ll understand, then, why I wondered, in a panic, whether Mr. Neighbour overheard my conversation with Jelly about The Penis. And I wondered, if he had heard, what he must have been thinking. I imagined an internal monologue something like this: “Those darn lesbians. What goes on in that household? If they would just stop shoving it in people’s faces already….”

But then I remembered, we’ve lived here quite a long time now, and for just as long we’ve wondered about Mr. Neighbour’s hearing. And so I can only hope he could not make out my words.

Dog in her bed with elongated yellow dog toy beside her

I’m too tired to play with The Penis today.

BC (Before Cancer) vs. AD (After Diagnosis)

Last weekend, I attended a lovely celebration of a friend’s 25th year at the bar (no, not that bar, as the invitation noted), catered by Calgary’s favourite Top Chef, Nicole Gomes. In addition to eating too much of the excellent food, I had the pleasure of chatting with T., the mom of Kailani, a much younger cancer survivor I wrote about some time ago. Kailani lost her hair through a gruelling bout of chemotherapy, which thankfully sent all her cancer cells screaming for the hills. T. shared wonderful stories of how Kailani’s university and larger community rallied around her through her illness.

In an interview, Kailani notes that when something like this happens (i.e. a cancer diagnosis), we do what we need to do to get through it. It may be hard and we wonder how we’ll survive, if not physically then emotionally, but we trudge on because we don’t have a choice. That’s what Kailani did, and it worked.

According to T., Kailani’s energy and fitness are slowly improving, and she miraculously attained a 4.0 GPA this past semester. Wow, I don’t think I ever managed grades that high, and I couldn’t even blame my mediocrity on chemo.

T. and Kailani have been following this blog, although I anticipated they’d ditch me now that Kailani is well. I asked T. why they hadn’t, and she suggested that (I forget her more eloquent wording) cancer is still very much a part of their lives. Even though Kailani is well, she still flies back from school every three months to check in at the Cancer Centre. Whether they want to be or not, Kailani and her family are still surviving cancer. I guess that makes sense: I can’t really imagine visiting the Cancer Centre just for fun, although everyone there is really nice.

I don’t think you have to have cancer to know what I’m talking about. We all have pivotal experiences that create a “before” vs. “after”. Maybe we change careers or end a relationship or take a trip or move to a new place or have a child or lose someone close to us. These experiences change the courses of our lives, and shift our view of ourselves and the people around us. And these life-changing events affect not just the individual but everyone around her.

Since Kailani’s cancer is cured, is she now AD or AC (that could be “After Cancer” or “All Clear”)? It’s never that simple after a journey like hers. Maybe we’re all a little AD, since we may overcome the momentous challenge yet we are forever transformed. That’s what T. was suggesting.

T. also spoke of Kailani’s strength through her diagnosis and treatment. According to T., Kailani always views her cup as half full, whatever she’s up against. As someone who must have a slow leak in her cup, I could sure benefit from some of that unrelenting positivity. That kid (okay, young adult) is so darn wise.