A Cancer Diagnosis: A Chaotic Journey

Chaos of a Cancer Diagnosis

A cancer diagnosis makes life chaotic. The disease acts as if it is an improvisational musician capable of changing direction without notice. Our body, with the help of radiation, surgery, or drugs defends against the disease as it mutates and grows. Just like the uncertainty a jazz tune’s direction will take, cancer’s development winds through our life in expected and unforeseen ways. A cancer diagnosis has two sides: Things we know and those we don’t.

Known Facts of a Cancer Diagnosis

We know when the cancer first started showing diagnostic indications, the date treatment will begin, the date when it will end, how soon after chemotherapy hair falls out, and the survival statistics for our type of cancer. Yes, all of these events produce anxiety, but at least we have information about when they occur, their timing, and affects on our body.

What’s Not Known About a Cancer Diagnosis

While the “known” facts of a cancer diagnosis create anxiety, the intensity of this feeling palls when placed against what we don’t know, such as will there be pain? Will drugs be sufficient to stop the pain? Will I live beyond the number of expected years (i.e. five-year survival data)? How will my family and friends react to my disease? Will I lose significant parts of my life even if I survive? Will I be able to cope with or adjust to the changes I’m about to experience?

These questions and a host of others keep us awake at night and complicate a loved one’s efforts to be a compassionate caregiver.

The Path of a Cancer Diagnosis

As someone who has been living with cancer for 13 years, I always hoped the path of my cancer would be similar to a well-laid out city grid pattern, where the streets numbers are sequential or run alphabetically from “A” to “Z.” You always know where you are by reading the street signs.

If I’m crossing Sixth Street, the next street will be Seventh.

Unfortunately, our travels are more like a country road adventure where directions from a local are fuzzy.  “Go down a ways until you come to the big rock on the left, then the road you’re looking for is a piece down the road. Look yonder for the biggest Sycamore tree, and take a soft left.”

Directions such as these lack the comfort of hearing “Go down to 43rd Street, turn left and go for two blocks until you come to Madison. Turn right and 785 Madison is on your left.”

Preparing for the Journey

Disappointments, ecstasy, and revelations will fill the country road journey you are about to take with your loved one. It promises everything found in a spellbinding novel but unlike a book, you can’t close it when you had enough.

Although some cancer journeys are predictable, most aren’t. There is a sociological theory called “rising expectations,” that can provide guidance to caregivers. It maintains that societies can be suppressed easier if people don’t have expectations for changes. For example, in a country that never has had freedom of the press, the population won’t become too disruptive if a newspaper is closed because it criticized the government.

But if they have experienced some freedom of the press, they expect it to become stronger—rising expectations—and the possibility of civil unrest is increased.

The lesson of the “rising expectations” theory for the caregiver is if you expect chaos on your cancer journey, and it occurs, you won’t be as devastated as if you didn’t expect it and stability becomes elusive. Expecting chaos is not being pessimistic, unfortunately, it’s realistic.

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