other people’s problems

Getting diagnosed with a chronic form of cancer at age 25 has left me ill-equipped to deal with anyone else’s medical issues now, at age 26. It has taken time for me to remember that me getting dealt a bad hand doesn’t mean that my family and friends are now immune to hardships or medical problems of their own. When I was newly diagnosed and recovering from surgery, I tried to shut out all the problems around me. But now that i’m feeling good–great, even –more often than not, I have been slowly trying to emerge and let the other problems in a little. They’re part of life. And my support system isn’t just there to support me–i’m supposed to be there to support them too.

I am. It is just awkward and new for me to be on the other side of the conversation. My good friend told me the other day that she’s getting checked out for some of the same symptoms that I had before I was diagnosed. In all likelihood, she doesn’t have cancer. But she might have something–and I don’t want her to have anything. Can’t I just have cancer and deal with it well emotionally for both of us, to save her the trouble of dealing with anything else? Now that I’m already sick, I don’t mind being a martyr.

It doesn’t work like that–remember?. Even though I know her doctors aren’t thinking cancer, there were just so many memories running through my head when she was talking about heartburn, a visit to a GI specialist, high liver-function tests, and an endoscopy, that I couldn’t keep myself from saying something. Well, a lot of things. About diet and about endoscopies and about liver-function tests and about blood tests and stool samples. I probably said too much. But all I have is my own experience. My own experience says: young people can get diagnosed with chronic conditions. I’m probably cavalier about chronic conditions, but especially about cancer. Just because i’m in a good place with cancer right now doesn’t mean that A) Things can’t change quickly and, more importantly, B) The word “cancer” or the idea of being “sick” forever isn’t really freaking scary for someone else.

So instead of freaking people out all the time (except maybe my friend–I hope I didn’t freak her out), I just walk around all day diagnosing people with cancer in my head. I would make a terrible doctor because anyone who came to see me complaining of heartburn or nausea or vomiting or diarrhea (my symptoms), would probably get sent directly to radiology for expensive imaging and other tests. How could they not have cancer? The truth is, these GI symptoms could be almost anything. But now that i’ve seen the zebra, it’s hard to see the horses.

My perspective on medical problems, or even just simple colds and flus, is forever skewed. If someone isn’t feeling well, I say the requisite pleasantries like, “Get better soon,” and then I think about what a luxury getting better is. Imagine getting better being that simple. Throwing up sucks all the time, but throwing up everyday for 5 months…

It seems my bar for things being a big deal–for “being sick”–has been set higher. I will soon start the liver transplant evaluation process. I throw the idea of a liver transplant around, but it’s a big deal. I had a really big surgery. I’m on hardcore drugs that screw with my immune system and my ability to process alcohol and any number of other things. Nothing else really registers. I know, everything is a big deal for the person it’s happening to…but I can’t relate anymore to most of the small things my peers complain about. Maybe i’m even guilty of complaining about comparatively small things–like the stupid shot I get once per month. Nevertheless, I try to be sensitive by taking myself out of the equation. It doesn’t always work.

Even as I say all this, it’s terrifying, but true, that 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will get diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime (a startling statistic from Emperor of All Maladies). That’s a lot of people. I have a lot more than 5 people I love who could fall into that statistic range. Sorry–why aren’t I already sick enough for all of us?

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5 Responses to other people’s problems

  1. Olaina says:

    I don’t know if it’s any help, but my husband Justin has the same reaction to people’s complaints about pain–and he IS a doctor. An ER doctor, which means he sees a lot of patients in pain. But, he had a traumatic amputation (lost half his left foot to a boat propeller during a 1996 Marine Corps training accident), and he really knows what 10 out of 10 pain feels like. So when there’s a patient sitting there calmly telling him that their headache is 10 of 10, without so much as a wincing face, he has to pause a little. What I’m trying to say is, your reaction is normal and reasonable given your situation. Plus, you are very kind and generous to be a little careful of what you say, depending on the situation. I think it’s OK to be detailed and concerned with a friend who also knows your situation and a little more guarded with people you know more casually. Everyone has to react to people based on their own experience in life, that’s all we have to go on. Be gentle with yourself! (Recognize that idea from cog and mindfulness? Me, too.)

  2. Piggeldy says:

    Sad thing is… even if you are “healthy”, once you have seen “zebra” in somebody else, you always see “zebra” for yourself. And fear “unicorne”, because “zebra” is just too simple.

    Everyone around me seems to have cancer. My fil passed from liver cancer, my mother had a gist, my little cousin (who has to be the healthiest person alive… who lived of tomatoes and fresh vegetables, disliked all kinds of meats and fatty things… who was physically active) had thyroid cancer at 18, my aunt (who hates the sun) has skin cancer. I had one bad ferritin blood level and I don’t think “nothing” or “stress” or “mistake” but think cancer as soon as I read somewhere that ferritin is also used as a tumor marker. Of course it’s “nothing”. As everybody else expected. But having a small immidiate family and “everyone” has cancer… you freak. For yourself and for the only other cousin you have who is still healthy.

    1 out of 3 women? I am safe. 3 out of 5 women in my family had cancer. Or does that mean that cancer runs in the family and the other two of us will for sure catch it one day? Worry or stop worrying? Think “unicorne” everytime something is off? You are always tired or can’t sleep, are always thirsty or not hungry enough, have diarreah or can’t go… And on the other hand, all those are family, none of my friends ever had cancer, does that mean I’ll be the first?

    Every reaction is reasonable. It’s based on your experiences. As long as you realize that you are crazy, you will be alright ;)

  3. aaronls says:

    Reminds me when my brother was about to have heart surgery to resolve palpitations and other symptoms, but got a second opinion and that doctor almost immediately suspected cancer, and ultimately was right. That second opinion probably saved my brothers life.

    So being crazy is ok as long as I admit it? :D

  4. Luan Rodrigues says:

    First of all.. Sorry my poor English.

    Hello Lindsay!

    I’m brazilian and my mother has cancer, i don’t know if it helps you, but she change her lifestyle based in alternative medicine. I would advise you to research about the book ‘Anticancer’, auto-hemotherapy, Gerson Therapy…

    Read more about vegetarian diet, cut the sugar, meat, bread and others food, because this type of food strengthens the disease.

    Change your lifestyle and maybe it helps you at the treatment.

    I’ll pray to you win this fight, put your life in the hands of god and go to battle.

  5. Cybit says:

    You are not alone in that last sentiment. I don’t know if this is how it works, but I hope that I got sick so that someone else I care about won’t.

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