Thursday, October 29, 2015

Open letter to a new cancer patient

I've been contacted by an organization called Cure Forward and invited to participate in a campaign. They are asking cancer survivors to write a letter to new cancer patients discussing their experiences and presenting advice.  I don't know much about Cure Forward (beyond a press release that dubbed it "Tinder for clinical trials"), but it looks like it's going to be a powerful resource for cancer patients.  At any rate, I have decided to write a letter, not to recap my experiences but to note the survival techniques that have worked for me thus far.  Who knows, perhaps I'll address this letter to myself when my cancer flares up again.

Dear newly diagnosed cancer patient,

You've got this.  You really do.  I know that you're scared, and that every hour of uncertainty feels like a day without sleep, but you can do this.

The cancer isn't your enemy.  It's a part of you.  Sure, you'll live longer if the doctors can find a way to get it out of you, but until they do it is a part of the beautiful whole that is you.  Your biggest enemy right now is fear.  Fear of the cancer, fear of being sick, fear of feeling pain, fear of dying, fear of bringing sorrow to loved ones, fear of not being there for your children, fear of letting down your spouse.

I know these fears.  At times I have lived with these fears daily.  The key to success, the key to survival, is releasing your fear.  I release my fear by breathing deeply, spending time in nature, exercising, hugging, meditating, and reading fiction.  These activities help me to release my fear to the wind, which carries it far far from here across the plains.  Find some activities that release your fear, and imagine a few cancer cells being carried along with it.

Sometimes you will feel weak, especially if chemotherapy is part of your treatment regime.  I found that weakness was an open door to fear.  When I physically felt weak, my mental fortitude broke down and the fearful thoughts creeped in.  Find ways to turn your weakness into strength.  Even when I was at my sickest, I took a walk every day.  Some days I could only shuffle across the street and back, but I savored reminding my bones that I still needed them and impressing myself with my resilience.

See, cancer, you can't make me stop walking.    

Sometimes you will feel bored with healing.  You will cross a threshold between feeling sick and well, spending days at a time in a wellness purgatory.  This period is difficult because you feel so much improved from your worst that your mind thinks you can walk around the block, or cook dinner, or play a game with your kids, but your actual capacity is to sit on your couch rather than lay in your bed.  These days will drag out.  Spice them up by listening to music, or inviting a friend over to visit you for a bit, or sitting outside.

I remember one particular boring, nauseous healing day during chemotherapy treatments for my second occurrence of breast cancer.  My brother was visiting, to keep me company and support my family.  He was working on his laptop at the table, and I was lying on the couch, feeling too crummy to watch TV or read but too good to fall asleep.  My brother wanted to help, so he put some salsa music on the internet radio.  I gradually let go of my whiny crumminess and started imaging dancing to live music outdoors in the summer.  Soon I'd be out there dancing in the summer again.  

See, cancer, you can't make me stop dancing.

Sometimes you will feel disappointed in yourself for not being able to do everything that you think you need to do.  That's okay, but let it go.  Indulge yourself, and immerse yourself in your own healing powers.  Let your friends and family help you in the ways that they can.

Sometimes you will need to be even braver than you were yesterday.  You might have things installed or injected in your body before you fully understand what they are or how they work.  You might receive news that is worse than the worst news you thought you could get.  But that's okay.  Because it's within your power to be braver than you were yesterday.

One of my best ways of being brave is to find humor in the situation.  A week after one particular chemotherapy treatment, I had terribly low numbers of cells in my blood.  This was causing me to feel dreadful.  My oncologist prescribed a blood transfusion, and as the transfusion was taking place I was filled with gratitude for the other human who donated his or her blood to me.  I was overcome with appreciation for those cells entering my body and what they were going to do for me.  I decided to write a letter.  To the cells.  From the other human.  I welcomed them to my body and presented them with some House Rules.  In addition to posting the letter on this blog, I also shared it with the doctors and nurses at my cancer center.  We all had a good laugh.

See, cancer, you can't make me stop laughing.

Newly diagnosed cancer patient, please feel free to email me if you want to chat (30carnations (at) gmail (dot) com).  I'm sure that I have much more to say, some of which I've already said in 5 years of blog posts during my cancer journey.  I'd be privileged to help you, if I can.

To your health and mine,



  1. Thank you for writing this letter Heather. You are real in speaking of fear, and joy, and feeling and releasing both as you continue to live with cancer...profound in all you touch on, and so very loving in how you share your message. Sending you lots of love, Kristi

    1. Thank you, Kristi! Sending love right back to you. <3

  2. Beautiful letter! I wish I was brave enough to print it for my son to read! I/we as a large family, still are trying to understand and wrap our heads around it.