When you first come to MD Anderson, you may be so overwhelmed that you have a real sense of urgency when you get here. Maybe you feel like there’s an alien invader in your body, so you want to jump straight into chemo.
I understand that desire. I was diagnosed with stomach cancer in July 2005, and I ended up having both my stomach and my esophagus surgically removed.
But my advice is to slow down. It took about a month to get everything ready for my stomach surgery. We had to discuss the plan, explore what life was going to be like for me after the surgery and make sure that what we were doing made the most sense — not just for the type of cancer I had, but for my specific cancer.
Here’s some more advice that helped me through my stomach cancer journey.
Slow down to notice ‘soul-buffering’ places
MD Anderson is not just doctors and nurses and needles and tests. It is an entire community that has little soul-buffering places, too. If you slow down, you’ll find a bubbling fountain, an herb garden or a coffee shop around every corner.
The sheer size of the place can be overwhelming, I know. I went from a hospital in Atlanta — which was just one building with multiple floors — to a complex of hospital buildings.
Learning to navigate MD Anderson takes a lot of effort, but once you do, it can become a place of genuine comfort. So take it one step at a time. You don’t do cancer in one day. It’s a process.
Find a mentor to hold your hand
Another thing I strongly suggest is to find a mentor, someone who has been there. There’s no reason you should have to face cancer alone. There are so many people who are willing, able and anxious to help.
myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s one-on-one support program for cancer patients and caregivers, has been an amazing tool for me. They do a great job of pairing you up with someone not just with the same type of cancer you have, but also from the same demographic. They could very well be about the same age, from the same background and in the same family situation.
If you stand up in a room and say, “Hey, has anyone else here had stomach cancer?” chances are, you’re not going to find anyone. But myCancerConnection gives you someone to hold your hand, and it’s a great resource. For me, the biggest help was just being able to ask someone, “Is what I’m experiencing normal?” Your network becomes your extended family.
Show your appreciation
The clichés are true: Life is short. Life is precious. So pick up the phone and say five kind words to someone who has made a difference to you during your cancer journey. I try to do this on a monthly basis — just go through a list of people who have changed my life. I pick up the phone and ask them to lunch or write a card. Not only is this amazingly good for you and the way you feel, but it changes their day entirely.
I think I would even say thank you to my stomach cancer if I could talk to it because it has absolutely changed my life for the better. I’ve had 12 surgeries in the last 10 years, and I have nerve damage and difficulty eating now, so I could complain until the cows come home. But I also have clarity and a razor-sharp appreciation for my life, my children and my wife that I didn’t have before.
Silver linings not are not just there for the picking; you have to mine them. And much like real silver, you have to dig deep. Sometimes you have to move mountains to find them, but the rewards are worth the effort. The chaos of cancer has left me a better person. So, if I were bowing out today, I would do so with a tip of my hat and a thank you to my disease.
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