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In Association with

Reflections on Facing Cancer, Fear and Loneliness


by Lois Tschetter Hjelmstad

Last Day
Treatment is ended...

a missing breast
a fading scar
a tangled network of nerve endings
a residing pain and numbness
a gnawing uncertainty

Life will go on, of course...

but I will not
be the same...

Small Amusements
There are some small amusements
Though at first they're hard to see
Like fluffing up my fiberfill
To make it look like me.

I have an empty pocket now
To store important things
Like passports and my credit cards
Or maybe diamond rings.

And there are times I have to smile
When people glance my way.
They stare and then get flustered—
They aren't sure what to say.

And once I had to chuckle as
A mirror I passed by.
My fluffy was off to the side
Its nipple much too high.

And exercise can bring a laugh
When I go out to trot.
One side is jogging with me—
The other side is not.

There are some small amusements,
But I find them very small.
And sometimes giggles turn to tears
And I can’t laugh at all...

I have looked at my mortality

Somehow that glimpse closes the gap
Between the here-and-now
And the once far-distant
Edge of tomorrow

It erases the perceived boundary
Between “if” and “when”

Time that once stretched endlessly
Has snapped
Like an old rubber band

I have always know that life is terminal—
But I did not understand it
Quite so well

You Will Be Just Fine
Please do not trivialize
My suffering.

You who are healthy
You whose mortality is as yet
Only dimly perceived—
Please do not say
“You will be just fine.”

I may well be—someday—
But I do not know...
You do not know...

A Reflection on Positive Thinking
My friend Jack has faced many hardships over the course of his life. He has learned to cope by deciding that reality is only what you perceive it to be. The problem is that he has difficulty accepting the fact that other people do not always perceive reality the same way he does.

His commitment to positive thinking is certainly sincere, but sometimes he sabotages the effort of others to work through their pain in their own ways. Rather than trying to help people deal with their honest emotions, he sometimes refuses even to acknowledge them.
People often charge cancer (and other) patients to “think positively.” Meaning well, some even give us books that become oppressive with hints that we are responsible for becoming ill and for getting well again.

Push away that negative thought!
Oh, please don't say that! If you think something bad, it will happen.
With that attitude, it's no wonder you have cancer.
If you really wanted health, you'd be well.
You must think positively.

I have had several friends who heard and read similar things and who worked very hard to maintain an optimistic attitude in the face of some very discouraging facts. Eventually they all died—each having to deal with more than a destroyed body. I admired their courage, but felt very sad that they bore this additional burden.
Sometimes when I tried to break through the barrier, to get them to talk about what they were really thinking and feeling, they seemed afraid to even mention the possibility of not getting well, as though that would be a jinx.

Did they think they were causing their illness? Did they blame themselves for not thinking positively enough?

I believe there is a mind-body connection. Our attitudes certainly affect the quality of our lives. I very much believe in living in a positive way. My game plan has been to carry on my life, continue as much of my teaching and writing as possible, enjoy every moment I can.

But I also believe in reality. And regardless of what the best approach might be for others, I have found that facing limitations, accepting them, and working around them has helped me to cope.

It works out better some days than others.

A Reflection on Commitment
Breast cancer is hard on the men in our lives. They must deal not only with the fear of losing us, but also with the tedium and trauma of treatments and our shifting moods as we confront our mortality. We often pull away from them because we cannot bear the possibility of rejection.

They must also deal with anger—ours as well as their own. They may be angry at feeling afraid we will die, angry at having their lives disrupted, but, perhaps most of all, angry at standards which say a man should not share his feelings with anyone—let alone a wife who is ill.

They respond to the challenge in various ways—some not so noble.

Some men could not be more caring—accompanying us to treatments and consultations, seeing past our shrillness to the underlying fears, and cooking dinner when life is more than we can bear. Les told me that the husband of another cancer patient recently asked him, “How do you cope when your wife becomes irritable?” Les responded, “It's difficult sometimes, but I try to understand the reason for it.”

Some men become impatient and want to get back to life as usual: “You've had your surgery. You've finished your treatment. Now let's get back to normal!”
Sometimes conflicts arise from different ways of coping. One husband shared with Les his despair that when he expressed a desire to make love, his wife retorted, “I'm thinking about death—and you're thinking about sex?” She didn't understand his need for intimacy, and he didn't understand her fear of mortality.

Some men were never attached emotionally at all. Others withdraw emotionally when they can no longer bear to watch our suffering or when the fear of loss becomes unmanageable.

And some men respond the way the husband of one of my friends did. One day he simply announced, “You have totally worn me out with your surgeries and treatments.” Then he packed his bags and left.

Some of the women in my cancer support group have said they cannot imagine coping with cancer without a supportive man in their lives. Others have said they are grateful they only have to worry about themselves. I am sure that sometimes it would be easier to cope without having to consider the feelings and needs of a mate, but I feel fortunate that Les has been so supportive.

There is no question that breast cancer is a crisis in most relationships. It magnifies the strengths and weaknesses that already exist.

Les and I have always invested a lot of effort in our marriage. We realize we have to invest more in it now, but neither of us regrets that choice. We try to be as honest with each other as we are with ourselves. We talk openly about our fears and our needs. If one of us has been unable to sleep, we share our worries the next day.

In many ways it is more difficult to watch the person you love suffer than to suffer yourself. I know that even when I sleep soundly at night, Les often wakes up in the wee hours and worries.

Excerpted from Fine Black Lines: Reflections on Facing Cancer, Fear and Loneliness by Lois Tschetter Hjelmstad. Copyright © 1993, 2003 by Lois Tschetter Hjelmstad. Excerpted by arrangement with Mulberry Hill Press. All rights reserved. $15.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800.294.4714 or click here.

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