Whether you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer or told your disease is terminal, there’s always a place for hope. I truly believe I wouldn’t have made it this far if that wasn’t true.
In 2001, I was diagnosed with a very rare extraskeletal osteosarcoma that had spread to my left kidney. Serious odds were stacked against me, but I pulled through. Unfortunately, sarcoma turned out to be just the beginning of my care at MD Anderson; I’ve since been treated for major side effects, melanoma, and now, stage IV colorectal cancer.
At the end of 2015, I learned that my body wasn’t responding to the treatment, and it was time to focus on improving the quality of my life instead of trying to prolong it.
Making that shift seemed like an impossible task, especially after all that I’d already overcome. Thankfully, I didn’t have to figure it out alone. Dr. Ali Haider, Dr. Suresh Reddy, Diana Guzman Gutierrez and the rest of palliative care team at MD Anderson’s Supportive Care Center have been by my side, helping me cope with the emotional and physical pain that accompanies this life-altering disease.
Accepting my terminal cancer diagnosis
At first, I didn’t think I could ever achieve peace or happiness. I was so afraid of dying that it had consumed my psyche and blinded me from seeing anything else in my life. I also didn’t want to break the news to my family, whom, up until that point, I’d protected from the details of my diagnosis.
During counseling, we had many conversations about living with a terminal diagnosis and finding joy in the days I have left. I learned how to appreciate all the richness that still exists in my life and use the time I have to enjoy my family instead of pushing them away.
Embracing my loved ones and communicating openly with them helped us all eventually accept the situation, and that has turned out to be another source of emotional healing for me. None of us have forsaken hope on our ability to be happy and at peace. That is a blessing on its own.
Making my last chapter count
At some point, I also realized that this is another chapter in my life and a whole bunch of new experiences and memories could be made in it. That’s certainly been the case.
I took Dr. Reddy’s advice and reached out to my friends, so now people from all over the country are coming to visit. We talk about everything under the sun, and we have a great time. In fact, many who thought they were coming to say goodbye were quite surprised that wasn’t my mindset.
This also has been an opportunity to rekindle my spirituality. I had some gut-wrenching intellectual discussions with one of MD Anderson’s chaplains, and that helped me reprioritize what I want to accomplish in my remaining life. I now refuse to waste any time harboring anger toward anyone or anything -- for any reason. Instead, I use that energy to pray for people I love and for things I want.
On the toughest days, I resort to reading because it removes me from the stress of thinking about everything. Yet no matter how lousy I feel, I always take the time to say, “Hi,” and smile at everyone I encounter. Doing so lifts my spirits and has led me to new friendships and experiences, such as serving in an advisory role to a support group organization that I once belonged to.
View life through a different lens
Over the last year and half, I have been able to see life from a new perspective. I've learned that "quality of life" are more than words; they’re a tangible strategy that I can hold onto and guide me in those moments when peace seems to elude me.
The truth is, we all have a choice: wallow in self-pity – and it would be justified – and remain miserable, or get out of the mindset of dying and focus on living. I can tell you right now: choosing the latter is so much better. So travel if you can, appreciate your loved ones, make memories, enjoy your hobbies and smile. Don’t give up hope or any of the things that made you happy before you got sick. You’re still living. Choose to celebrate that.