What cancer has taught me: emotional health begins with communication
Justin Ozuna lives in Dallas and was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in January 2006. He is a Texas state representative and Dallas/Fort Worth facilitator for The National CML Society and a patient at MD Anderson. His mission is to capture the ups and downs of a young adult living with cancer and to serve people through humor, encouragement, hope and adversity at his blog, theozunaverse.com.
A couple of hours after I received a call from my doctor, notifying me of my leukemia, I walked into my house. There sat Josh, my younger brother, in the chair opposite the front door and my dad on the couch immediately to the right.
I could tell by my brother's tears that word had already gotten back to them about my diagnosis. I immediately felt I had to do something.
From the deepest source of strength I could summon, I calmly shared with them the details of my diagnosis. I wasn't quite sure what it all meant at the time, but it didn't matter. What mattered was communicating to them that I'd be OK.
Cognitively, I knew the heartache wasn't my fault, but I also knew that if I weren't diagnosed with cancer, the room wouldn't have been so heavy that evening. Complex emotions give way to irrational thoughts; the subconscious does everything it can to convince you that you're in control of the heartache and pain of others.
Protecting my family
For the next few months my family was involved in doctors' visits and treatment progression. As my medicine started to work and the fear of a cancer diagnosis began to recede, I reaffirmed for them the belief I shared upon diagnosis: I'll be OK.
Meanwhile, I wasn't aware that I didn't know how to tangibly handle the pressures of leukemia on my own. Until this point, I had not been billed for a doctor's visit nor had I picked up a prescription that cost more than $20. Like a person staring at a long hallway with many unknown doors, my only long-term plan was to do what I could in the short-term -- experience everything and make a lot of mistakes.
Just as the wheels in my life began to shake, my family had a sense of peace again. Because I wanted to guard them against the long and frustrating tentacles of uncertainty, I didn't share my concerns with them.
I felt like protecting my family from the hardships of cancer was the only thing I could control. The weight of seeing them upset outweighed the challenges I was sure I'd one day overcome. I mistook strength for preservation and began to subconsciously cut myself off from the only real support I had.
As life continued, I occasionally struggled to afford my medication, but I never asked for help.
Emotionally, I couldn't discern between the normal feelings of being a mid-20s male and those of being a mid-20s male living with cancer. Because I didn't know anyone who had been through the same experiences, I never talked about it.
Consequently, I developed a bad habit of living as if I didn't have cancer, and dealt with problems as they arrived.
It became a vicious cycle.
Slowly, but surely, leukemia once again wrapped itself around me like a ravenous boa constrictor. Every misstep encouraged a tighter grip; every doubt fostered a selfish solution. And yet, I continued to stay silent.
Loosening the stranglehold
Three years into my diagnosis, I began dating Katie, who's now my fiancée. By default, she took an interest in both my physical and emotional world.
She could see the heaviness of my diagnosis and was objective in her approach to expose the distance I had placed between me and everyone else. Lovingly, she began to dissolve the illogical illusion that led me to believe protection and strength could coexist in the world of cancer.
Katie helped me realize that I was doing more harm than good.
Somehow, I believed I could be everything to everyone without allowing for the possibility that they could be the same for me. I realized that the behavior I perceived as noble was better defined as futility.
Soon after, the constrictor that had begun to suffocate me loosened its stranglehold. I committed to vulnerability and acknowledged that cancer didn't initiate super human abilities within me.
It wasn't my job to protect the hearts of those around me, it was my job to stay emotionally healthy. No longer was I deceived by the belief that cancer can be defeated from the outside in. I knew I had to attack it from the inside out. When I accepted this, I began to feel a sense of freedom.
Being able to talk openly about my frustrations with cancer has exposed me to an entirely different world I didn't know existed.
It has drawn out my strengths, inspired others who deal with different hardships, and has allowed me to participate in a more meaningful dialogue about the difficulties of being young and living with cancer.
I no longer waste energy trying to shepherd the uncontrollable. Instead, I use those efforts to enjoy the things I can control: faith, love, joy, empathy and gratefulness.