WHEN COVID AND CANCER COLLIDE
Updated: Feb 15
Since March, I have been writing about how connection benefits us, especially during a pandemic. Each month, I organize thoughts from my experiences in New York City, take photos I hope you'll enjoy, and share my pandemic perspective with you. Since my last email in mid-summer, I have been thinking about how to frame my thoughts about life and Covid at the start of September. But in all of that pondering, I never thought I would be writing this... It's about cancer, not Covid.
MY CANCER HISTORY - HOW CONNECTION MADE IT BETTER
Fourteen years ago this month, when I was living in Texas, I received an unexpected diagnosis of breast cancer. It was a long journey, which thankfully concluded with a very good outcome. Such promising results were only possible due to the finest of medical teams at the cancer center where I was treated, AND my good fortune to connect with so many inspirational people along the way. What happened AFTER my cancer — my desire to impact other lives and find a way to give back — changed my life forever.
As I was healing from surgery, and even before I had begun my next treatment, I volunteered to get involved in helping other survivors. It happened so quickly, that the next time I looked up, I was leading a one-of-a-kind breast cancer advocacy program at TCU. Called Frogs for the Cure, our year-long efforts centered around outreach and community awareness, raising important funds for research, providing education, and giving survivors a significant way to feel supported.
The strategic connections that were built between the University, medical providers, cancer nonprofits, and the city and region were powerful. On a grand scale, Frogs for the Cure was unique in the way we showcased the bravery and courage of those fighting cancer. With the involvement of thousands, our highest profile initiative was the production of an annual full-length music video featuring survivors, health care professionals, and celebrities. From coast to coast, we engaged people who shared the enthusiasm for our mission. For fourteen years, as both survivor and spokesperson for the cause, I lived in the headspace of cancer. That meant my wardrobe included lots of pink. And I constantly thought about how to help others mitigate the extreme loneliness of a cancer diagnosis.
When I left Texas three and a half years ago, I also left that work behind. The intensity of my constantly thinking about cancer was set aside. At least for a time. Until three weeks ago. That was when I was catapulted right back in, after a person I love learned he had a cancer diagnosis. Prostate cancer.
HOW YOU CAN BE A CONNECTOR DURING A HEALTH CRISIS
Even before getting such unexpected, troubling news, Bill first had to endure the discomfort of a biopsy (minus anesthesia!) As the urologist took the twelve needle samples, each agonizingly slow, one after another, Bill attempted levity. “Is it absolutely essential I be awake for this, doc?” And then a few days later, Bill answered his cell phone at work to hear his doctor utter a torrent of disturbing words: “The biopsy shows that you have intermediate cancer. I am ordering an MRI and a bone scan. We will discuss results at your next appointment.” The urologist, Dr. Weiner, whose last name is appropriately pronounced just like the hot dog, is a straight shooter. “Tell your family and friends you won’t die of this,” he explained, “but we can’t afford to just kick the can down the road. You will need to be treated.”
When I later heard Bill summarize his situation to a friend, by saying he had a “mild case of cancer,” I knew I had a role to play. Anyone who has ever gone through cancer knows what a blur it is to hear the words. The instinct is to latch on to anything the doctor says that makes the most sense to you. And you probably won’t hear much after that. But, soon enough, you’ll realize you need a whole new medical vocabulary, and that cancer doesn’t wait for you to take the introductory course. It was time for me to help Bill help himself. Most of all, I wanted to convey how connection can give you the upper hand to get through any crisis. But how was I going to do this? My goal was to convince Bill that being a connector will give him an outlet to deal with the shock and uncertainty, and the support to figure out how to proceed.
WHAT IF YOU ARE NOT A CONNECTOR
Bill doesn’t seek to build connections. He prefers to be his own problem solver, and is masterful in his execution of work responsibilities. However, cancer is such a formidable challenge, even he is coming to know this is different. He can't do this alone. Knowing it would be delicate for me to find both the right tone and the right message, I stewed for a full day and night about what to say.
I'll tell you what advice I offered to Bill in hopes it will help you or someone you love. If my counsel isn't relevant to you right now, that’s wonderful. It means you are out of harm’s way. But if by chance, you have a partner, parent, child, or friend who is struggling with a health problem, you have my permission to use any of my words to guide your loved ones. So here's how my conversation with Bill started: “I am going to offer you five thoughts to give you both encouragement and direction. If you keep my advice in mind, you will be able to take control of this diagnosis for what it is...a challenge best met by being open to building new relationships and connections with people who can help you.” “What?!” Bill asked, horrified. “You KNOW I am not a MENTIONER!”
It’s a running joke between us. I am the one that mentions. I ALWAYS probe. I ask the next question. I investigate. I find the commonalities. I get to know people. I keep up with them. In contrast, Bill is a figure it out, rely on your own power, get the job done, mind your own business kind of guy. “Because connecting with people -- lots of them -- is the ONLY way through this,” I answered. “It will expand your knowledge, give you emotional support, and transform your fear into a logical, organized process.”
That last part resonated. Bill was born with the mind of an engineer. He loves to know how things work, to take them apart and put them together again. His love language is acts of service. Replacing the specialty light sockets in the chandelier. Repairing eyeglasses. Repacking the Amazon package for return EXACTLY the way it was shipped. Washing wine glasses so they sparkle. Figuring out what the rattle is in the car...and fixing it. But exploring how he could connect? Really connect? With people he doesn't know? Horror! But cancer demands he learn.
FIVE CONNECTION SKILLS TO MEET ANY HEALTH CHALLENGE
Using an acronym for a medical term, I settled on the letters for HIPAA (the privacy law for patient’s rights) to explain to Bill my five points. Each of the five connection skills is represented by a letter: H – accept help. Realize that someone (maybe many someones) will go through this with you. As much as you are going to feel alone at times, the people whose lives are intertwined with yours will be sharing this experience. Figure out what you need, and what they are good at. Then ask them for it. I - get informed. Buy books. Join chat groups. Make notes. Look up the words you don’t know. Try to understand. Seek explanation. In the case of cancer, what you don’t know CAN hurt you. P - prepare yourself to PUT CANCER FIRST. This is tough. You want to pretend that you can go back to the priorities you had before you heard the news. But you can’t. Cancer is now your job. You move forward only when you accept this. Be on top of it. If you don’t, cancer gets the upper hand. A - ask questions of others, especially survivors with similar diagnoses. They will tell you things you don’t even KNOW you need to know. You’ll quickly learn and value that the people who really get it are those who have been through it. They will be your most beneficial connections. A - advocate for yourself. Be skeptical. Listen, but know you don’t have to take all advice, even from every doctor you visit. There is no "one size fits all" treatment. You, and only you, get to decide. And your connections will provide you support and get you through.
And so Bill proceeds to chase cancer during this season of Covid.
It will be a journey. But being connected will make it easier.
“I have your back,” I told him. “And so many others will too.”
I urge YOU to be a connector for those in your world who need you. Connection is our superpower, giving us the edge in life and love.