August 26, 2013
After chordoma: Coping with anger and change
BY Hank Lech
When I was diagnosed with chordoma in my C2 vertebrae, my first reaction was "This is a mistake, I can't have cancer. The x-rays, biopsies and doctors are wrong."
I was the one who was at the gym six days a week doing cardio and lifting weights. I was taking my daughter to Rome and on a cruise in three weeks. I cried, worried, prayed and was mad as hell. I vowed that cancer would not win. After my consultation at MD Anderson, I learned that life would be turned upside down and I began to hear about a "new normal." I heard about tracheas, peg and NG feeding tubes, drains, and rods and screws that would hold on my head. To top it off, I'd need two surgeries -- one to get part of the vertebrae out of my back, and another in which my jaw would be split and mouth opened wide enough to retrieve the rest of the chordoma.
I learned I might not be able to eat, talk or swallow for a quite a while, if ever. I worried that I would come out of the hospital looking like Hankenstein. I joked with the doctors, my daughter, family and friends to put my mind at ease. I threw a pre-op dinner with a cancer surgery theme. I tried to have a positive attitude. But I was becoming angrier each day.
After chordoma treatment: Anger over my "new normal"
I made it through two 10-plus-hour surgeries. After the second surgery, the anger really hit. There were things that I was unable to do. I looked like hell, couldn't speak, eat or shower, and I was hooked up to so many tubes. My sister, who was there to help and support me, took the brunt of my anger. Even though I couldn't talk, people knew I was angry.
I expressed anger to the staff and was so angry with one discharge nurse that I ran away. One of the physical therapists found me. She helped me walk that anger out. But the anger always returned.
Back home in Florida, I had to rely on people to assist me. My incisions were getting infected, and I still had to deal with the peg feeding tube. I wasn't able to work out. Food didn't taste right, I had trouble forming words, my tongue felt odd and I grew tired easily.
I did not sign up for this. I wanted to be back to "normal," not this "new normal." I took out my frustration on my daughter and her mother, who were both so helpful. The smallest of things set me off.
One day, grease splashed and burned me while I was cooking. I screamed, cursed, punched a wall and began to cry. I'd had enough. I couldn't win, and I didn't want to play anymore. As I regained my composure, my hand began to swell and I phoned my daughter to take me to the ER. I found out that I had broken my hand. I was too ashamed to admit exactly how I'd injured my hand.
My anger came to a head one day with my ex-wife. She recognized that I had anger issues and urged me to talk with someone. She was correct. I needed to speak with someone -- and quickly.
The importance of acceptance and talking it out after cancer
I made an appointment with a professional and unloaded all of my fears and frustrations. The issues, the pain, the changes and the anger were put into his lap.
I found out that what I was going through was normal and not "the new normal." What was not normal was the way I was handling it.
Learning to accept what I'd been through and talking it out was the key to a full and healthy recovery. I began to work on my new post-chordoma normal, spending more time at the gym. Working out as best I could and walking helped relieve my anger.
I spent more time with friends and focused on my faith, which had helped me through my surgeries. When my sister mentioned that I was so much calmer than a year earlier, I realized that I was making progress.
Emotional and spiritual healing from cancer
Cancer brings out so many different emotions, which need to be recognized, talked about and shared.
I wish I would have spoken with MD Anderson's Patient Services when I was there. Being a social worker and former hospital chaplain, I should have realized I needed help.
We cancer patients need to remember that though the physical healing we go through is tough, we also require emotional and spiritual healing -- and there are those who can help.
Though the physical healing we go through is tough, we also require emotional and spiritual healing.