Accepting Help –

A few days after I received my diagnosis, my Mom returned to NJ. My kindergarten memories returned as I found myself in the throes of childhood separation anxiety.

I was now halfway through my six-week post-surgery recovery timetable. Exercise, heavy lifting, and warm baths were still off the table, but I was able to resume some of my social activities and get back to work in the two weeks leading up to receiving my treatment plan.

In a typical yoga class, the last pose is Savasana, in which everyone lies on their back for several minutes, breathing deeply with their eyes closed. While very simple, the pose is intensely relaxing and restorative. I love it so much that my sister Meghan once gave me a sweatshirt that reads “I’m just here for the Savasana.”

Walking into my office three weeks after surgery evoked a Savasana of a different kind. As I viewed the stacks of mail, papers and my closed laptop on my desk, my whole body exhaled. The disorder of my desk summoned me for review and organization – two things I was good at.  Things that had absolutely nothing to do with cancer. Namaste!

With the exception of a few co-workers who were also close friends, I decided to keep my cancer diagnosis private until I confirmed the details of my treatment plan.

Although I spent the better part of my life being an all-star at withholding information, I always drew a hard line at lying. But as I engaged with my co-workers upon my return to the office, I felt I was straddling this line.

It was true that the surgery was a “success” and the mass was removed “entirely.” However, as I uttered these words and watched relief wash over my colleagues’ faces, I felt guilty. I was aware that my words would be understood as my having averted a storm, when, in reality, I was standing in a temporary patch of sunlight while the dark clouds regained strength and moved in my direction.

While not being straight forward with my co-workers gave me pause, I put it aside. I was getting through the day on an hour-by-hour basis, so anything that I could either literally or figuratively put off until “tomorrow,” I did.

The big, unavoidable task in front of me was preparing for my next visit with my oncologist. In the days that followed my last appointment, the bubble created by the shock of my diagnosis burst as it hit the hard pavement of my present reality. From this, “Type A Christine” reemerged.

While I was anxious to receive my treatment plan, I was not willing to blindly follow the advice of a nameless/faceless Tumor Board without doing some research.

Whatever the ultimate plan would be, I needed to feel that I “owned” it. This was territory where I felt solid, as my entire career basically comes down to my ability to successfully create and execute a project plan.

But in my cancer project, there was a new, unfamiliar variable that I did not have a plan for or process to address.

My family.

It was clear to me that my having cancer meant my family had it too. And like a vacation timeshare, they also wanted an “ownership” stake in my treatment plan.

Intellectually and emotionally, I understood my family’s worry and their need to participate and support me. But, how best to operationalize their participation was a struggle.

This challenge became apparent during a phone call with my Mom after she returned home.

It started with my Mom saying, I want Sharon to go with you to your treatment plan appointment.

Why? I responded.

Because Sharon is excellent in these types of situations. She is very good at research, and I think she can help get us ready for this meeting with your oncologist.

Well, I am really good at those things too, I said with the tone of an insecure adolescent.

My reply to my Mother illustrates another epiphany I had in the early days of my diagnosis. Cancer would unearth all of my unresolved angst and play out in episodes of regressive behavior.

Here I was, in my forties, with cancer, responding to my Mom’s suggestion of help with a childlike need for validation. In my mind’s eye, I could see Sigmund Freud shaking his head with a knowing expression.

I will call Sharon and figure it out, I told my Mom.

Despite my reaction to my Mom’s advice, I was so grateful for the support of both my sisters. I was talking to Sharon and Meghan multiple times a day.  Unknowingly, before ending a call, they would each say, I will call you back in an hour.

Sometimes those hours felt like an eternity.

I understood the reasons why my Mom wanted Sharon to go with me to discuss my treatment plan with my oncologist. Less than a week after finding out my diagnosis, Sharon had located a pathologist who dedicated his career to researching Sertoli-Leydig. She sent him an email and was now engaged in a conversation about my case.

I could not ask for a more talented advocate to help me prepare for my appointment. But when I called Sharon, her enthusiasm for the task brought out a whole other set of behavioral patterns in me that did nothing to support the cause.

Now I felt bad that Sharon had to make the trip and I started to make excuses for why she shouldn’t come – such as the travel, (Seattle is far away) and my nieces (they were practically babies and needed their Mom). But every excuse I had, Sharon easily diffused.

I want to be there for you and go to your appointment, Sharon said.

The unwavering support from Sharon and my entire family was overwhelming, both in the spirit of love with which it was delivered and in its ability to break down my longstanding barriers.

But I was still on the fence about Sharon making the trip, so I shifted the discussion to her communications with the pathologist, which transitioned to a discussion about my oncologist. Sharon started reciting facts about his research, articles he had written and things that patients have said about him.

How do you know all of this? I asked incredulously.

Without missing a beat, Sharon replied, Because I have read everything your oncologist has ever written or has been written about him.

It only took a moment for me to take in the magnitude of what Sharon said.

Let’s get your flights booked.  You’re coming with me. 

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