By Andrew Griffith
Andrew Griffith has mantle cell lymphoma and has had both an autologous (from his own cells) and an allogeneic (from a donor) stem cell transplant in November 2009 and August 2011, respectively. He lives in Canada and is married with two young adult children. He blogs at www.lymphomajourney.wordpress.com, has published "Living with Cancer: A Journey," and can be followed on Twitter @lymphomajourney.
We are often pulled in different, opposing directions, and take time to find the balance between acceptance and anger, surrender and control, individual and group, being and thinking, living and dying. How we find balance and what that balance is influences our attitude.
Throughout my journey, I was struck by a number of differences or contradictions as I reflected on my reactions and the reactions of those around me. Looking at my reactions in terms opposites or contrasts gave me a better sense of where I was and how my state of mind evolved over time. When I was having a good week, I was clearly leaning in one direction; during a bad week, I leaned toward the other. Recognizing the dynamic prevented me from shifting into depression or, at the other extreme, cheerful optimism.
My attempts at staying centered were challenged when I relapsed after only 14 months.
It took me longer to get back in the same space, and that round of cancer treatment was harder on me.
The stakes seemed higher given my treatment options -- do nothing and have further relapses and death within a few years, or go the high-risk route of an allogeneic stem cell transplant.
Here I explain two of the conflicts that I came back to most often.
Acceptance / anger
A lot of my cancer-related reading, and some comments by friends and family, focused on anger as a normal reaction. How can this happen to me? Why me, married with two children, rather than my brothers, who are not? Do all my efforts to keep fit, eat well and have a balanced life mean nothing?
Relapse made it worse. Why could I not have the average three to five years before relapse?
However, I never surrendered completely to anger, even during the difficult days of coming to terms with my relapse and the options I faced. Anger did not help me or my family and friends deal with what I ultimately had to accept and take as a given, fair or not.
The darkness of anger and what follows -- depression -- simply did not resonate with what I had to do to get through the treatment and my need to support family and friends who were supporting me.
Individual / group
One of the first bits of advice I received was about taking care of myself. In a very real sense, this proved important -- the lymphoma affected me, I was the one being treated, and I was the one whose mortality was in question.
Yet at the same time, it was not just about me. It also was about my family, the impact that my journey was having on them and how much we all relied on each other. It was about my friends as well as my colleagues, with whom I have a degree of mutual reliance and support.
My focus shifted from the 'me' to 'the group,' and what I could and should do to help them. The degree to which I could support them -- by being open and sharing what I was going through and focusing on acceptance rather than anger -- in turn helped them support me. A self-reinforcing circle of support.
For me, it was about myself with the group, not myself as an individual. Interdependence, not independence.
This seemed even more true when I faced the options of doing nothing, and essentially having up to two years to live, or having a high-risk stem cell transplant in hopes of living longer.
When my son asked me what I thought of these options, right after I received a brutal second opinion, my first thought was about the importance of being there longer for my family. If I were alone, doing nothing and avoiding the risks of the stem cell transplant might have been attractive. Since I have a family, however, being with them for as long as possible and for more of my kids' milestones took priority.
Tomorrow, I will discuss other contradictions in my cancer journey.
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