When my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma back in 1999, we were devastated. Like the millions of other people around the world who learn they have cancer every year, we journeyed through the common five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Sometimes we might go through all five stages in one day. Sometimes we might spend weeks stuck on one stage, feeling completely paralyzed and unable to move forward.
And why is it exactly that we grieved and that millions of others grieve annually in the face of a diagnosis? It's simple. When a doctor presents a diagnosis such as cancer, it forever changes your life. It's a "Point of No Return." Things never quite go back to the way they used to be, and depending on the aggressiveness of the cancer, the road ahead of you will look nothing like what you might've planned for yourself.
Coming to this realization can be overwhelming, stressful, and heartbreaking. You grieve therefore for the normal life that must be laid to rest, the one that is no longer yours for the taking, the one that has been replaced with endless hospital visits, bad news from oncologists, and chemo treatments that you leave you physically exhausted, mentally drained, and sometimes spiritually bankrupt.
It doesn't help that in the beginning, your feet are firmly planted in Stage 1 of Grief: Denial. You freeze. You're in absolute shock. How could this be happening to you? Cancer is something that happens to other people, you think. Cancer wasn't supposed to be in the cards. How could your life be flashing before your eyes? You haven't even gotten to do everything that you wanted to do with your life.
No, you insist. It simply can't be happening. Your body falls into the routine of going to those initial meetings with your oncologist but your mind is far away. Though your heart feels like lead inside your chest, the stubborn part of you refuses to believe that this is your new reality. You're certain that there must be a mistake, or that the cancer isn't that serious; that it can be easily removed from your body.
Eventually, reality sets in and with it come the other stages of grief. The anger ("this wasn't supposed to happen"), the bargaining ("if you just take this away, I promise..."), the depression ("why me?"), and then finally the acceptance ("this is really happening after all").
Even when you're finally able to accept the task before you, however, the journey ahead is only getting started. It can often feel as if the road at your feet is stretching for miles and miles all the way to the horizon in a dozen different possible forks and directions, and there's not a single soul available to show you the path that can mean the difference between life and death. So you come to a halt. You're rendered immobile. You're afraid to step in any direction and stay standing where you are.
You become a "passive patient." You entrust your life into your doctor's hands and allow them to pilot the journey, call all the shots, and chart the course they feel is best for you. You become afraid to do anything besides what the doctor suggests you do. After all, they're the ones with the degree, aren't they? You aren't the first patient who's walked through their doors and you certainly won't be the last. Things feel more comfortable in the passenger's seat. You don't have to worry about the cancer and you don't have to stress yourself out. You can revisit the Denial Stage whenever you'd like and pretend as if the cancer isn't there at all.
I realized many years ago when my husband received his diagnosis, however, that as tempting as this approach may be, and as often as its lures many cancer patients into its snare, it's an approach that can be likened to fighting a forest fire with a garden hose. It's extremely limited in that it's only one method of solving a very real and very big problem, a method that often times simply isn't enough.
As my husband was undergoing his chemo treatments, we didn't want to employ one method in our warfare against cancer. We wanted to strike the enemy down in as many ways as we knew how. However, when we asked the oncologist how we could join the fight, he told us there was nothing we could do. Nothing. The word was heavy on our hearts that day and in the days that followed.
Nothing. They told us they would simply make my husband comfortable, and that all I could do was hope that science would stay ahead of his disease. Nothing. They told us we'd never be able to have children. Nothing. Was it really so impossible to stand opposite this foe? Were we kidding ourselves by going in with our blind faith and keeping ourselves strong with stories of other cancer survivors who found ways to overcome battle after battle?
Nothing wasn't a good enough answer for me. For us. We wouldn't accept "nothing." We didn't want to approach this war empty-handed and with low expectations. We decided to believe otherwise. Instead of doing "nothing," we vowed to do something; to do anything. We weren't going to give in without a fight.
That's when we became "active patients." In other words, we were determined to take responsibility for the outcome we were praying for. The chemo treatments, I came to understand, were just one approach to cancer (not to mention one with terrible side effects). We decided we'd let the doctors handle business their way but once we were off the "chemo clock," we were going to use everything available to us to increase our odds of winning.
It worked out in our favor. Not only did my husband enter remission and stayed there for years (today he's healthier than ever), but despite what the doctors told us was impossible, we even had a child together who is now 8 years old.
In light of my journey, I've become a transformational holistic health coach. My passion is for helping those affected by cancer create a future that isn't darkened by the storm cloud of the disease. I especially enjoy teaching people how to take an active role in every aspect of their healthcare. While I am grateful for many of the advances in conventional medicine, it is only a piece of the healing journey. I believe an integrative approach (not just one based on conventional medicine) is what ultimately helped my husband conquer cancer.
So now I encourage others to determine the approaches that are best for them. No, you don't have to take what your doctor says as gospel. This isn't to say the medical community is not to be trusted. I've met incredible oncologists who truly do have a heart for their patients. However, I've also heard horror stories of doctors who belittle their patients, who don't want to field their questions, or who simply want to rush their patient out the door to get through their to-do list of visits.
It's ultimately up to you to decide how you'll fight your battle. What quality of life do you want to have as you go through treatment? How do you want to feel? What do you feel comfortable trying? What do you not feel comfortable trying?
When it comes to your doctor, stand up for yourself and assert yourself. Ask the questions you're hesitating to ask. If a doctor offers you an umbrella statement such as "don't try that, it'll interfere with treatments," ask them for more information. Why will it interfere? How will it interfere? I offered a client this counsel once and when she asked those very questions, the doctor said he'd get back to her and did a complete 180 on his initial advice, assuring the client that the treatment she wanted to try would be fine after all.
You have to get down to the facts. You need access to every resource. Become the active patient who doesn't just go along with the flow, who doesn't let strangers chart the course that will determine whether or not you beat the cancer. Get in the know. Do your research. Speak with other cancer patients and with survivors and learn what they're doing and what they've done to pack a punch against cancer.
At the end of the day, remember that you're the one fighting for your life. My husband and I decided that we would fight, that we wouldn't be passive, that we would take an active role in doing everything that we could to win the battle. I'm so glad we made that decision. When I look at our life, our beautiful home, our amazing son, and the bright future ahead of us, I know that all of it was well worth fighting for. I hope you choose to believe the same.