I watched a documentary the other night on a young Canadian called Terry Fox. He had aggressive osteosarcoma at a young age and died at 22. But in that short time and while trying to fight an aggressive disease he managed to inspire a nation and the world. He attempted to run a marathon a day across Canada as a fundraiser for cancer. And he did this on a prosthetic leg as his leg had been amputated in an attempt to stop the spread of his cancer. This got me thinking about the mindset of cancer warriors and cancer survivors. And I wondered whether there would be anything in the cancer journey that had given them a different perspective on Covid-19.
I started thinking about some very special individuals that I have had the privilege of working with in my job as a physiotherapist. They too had aggressive cancers. Sadly, some of them did not win the battle. They stay with me in my heart. But there were also many who did survive. And I wondered how cancer had influenced their outlook. And if they felt they had acquired any tools in their toolboxes that would help with facing a worldwide pandemic. I got hold of them and they very kindly shared some of their thoughts with me.
Karin had osteosarcoma at age 17. She had aggressive chemotherapy and a radical surgery to save her femur and knee joint where the tumour was located. This meant that she spent at least a week in hospital every time she had chemotherapy. And then it took a few weeks at home to recover after those sessions as the chemotherapy is extremely aggressive for these cancers. The recovery and rehabilitation for her leg was also a slow and challenging process especially when she had to continue exercises during her chemo weeks so as not to lose range of motion and strength.
But Karin fought incredibly bravely through it all and is now a doctor and second year registrar specialising in orthopaedics at Tygerberg Hospital. These are her thoughts:
“Having been through a cancer journey and the extreme highs and lows that come with it has prepared me for dealing with other potential health scares as I am less fearful of the unknown. Having been close to death with severe neutropenia sepsis during my cancer treatment has also allowed me to accept that death is a part of life. And that the timing of death is different for everyone. I am a lot less afraid of dying having been through and survived cancer as a teenager.
When I am stressed or concerned about cancer or life in general I try to walk, do a hike or exercise. I also speak to family or friends. And I use my travel time to and from work to separate my work thoughts and fears from home life. I am still working at the hospital during the South African lockdown for Covid-19 so I am finding it helpful to be able to leave my house and do my normal work at the hospital. There are certain freedoms that I miss- like being able to gym or eat out but I am cooking more and trying out new recipes and this has been very fulfilling and enjoyable. I have also had more time to organise my home and feel that I have strengthened some family and friend relationships because we are simply talking to each other more than normal.”
Karin also had some thoughts on what others could do in lockdown. She felt it could be useful for some people to simply use the time to reflect. And for others it could be a time to organise personal space or reconnect with old friends. Exercise workouts online or trying new recipes were other practical suggestions. And maybe just simply using the time to rest and recharge.
I love these thoughts from Karin and am so grateful to her for giving me a window into her life, a glimpse into her tool box and lots of positive ideas to ponder.
Chad was diagnosed with osteosarcoma when he was 16. He had to endure the same aggressive chemotherapy as Karin and had to have many surgeries to salvage his femur and knee joint. These surgeries are miraculous in many ways in that they avoid amputation but they come with their own share of difficulties. It is a long road and muscles and nerves close to the tumour are also removed. This means that all the normal biomechanics are affected and ongoing rehabilitation will be needed and further surgeries are highly likely.
But Chad was also a warrior and came through his battle courageously. He is now a junior designer at a Cape Town ad agency and very kindly shared his thoughts with me as well.
“I feel that my cancer journey did prepare me for handling something like Covid-19. It taught me what it is like to struggle or be restricted. I had taken mobility and a certain type of freedom for granted. During my cancer treatment I felt restricted and confined. I would go from my house to a doctor’s appointment or a physiotherapy session and then straight back home again. And I spent a lot of time in my room. But this taught me to train my mind. I became reliant on my imagination and determination to get back on my feet.
I manage stress or fear with a good long bath. I find submerging myself very calming. I also try to write when I feel stressed.
I am working from home in lockdown and staying with my girlfriend. We have a rough schedule and we spend time meditating and doing online exercise classes. And we are also focusing on healthy living. We enjoy cooking and making some of our own healthy products. I also do creative things like digital design and sketching. I think the lockdown has been good in that we have been very intentive with our time together.”
I wondered if Chad had some thoughts or tips for others on a cancer journey or in uncertain times like the Covid-19 situation. I love his words:
“ Fear is a free flowing energy- a little bit like love – so we can be afraid or uncertain when it presents itself but it can also just as easily be taken away. Life is uncertain, change is inevitable and we should embrace it. Do anything you can to keep your mind strong”
I am so excited that I asked Chad for his thoughts and I so appreciate his honesty and insightfulness. I for one was so inspired and moved by my journey with Chad and Karin all those years ago. And what a blessing and privilege to have them share some of their beautiful adult selves with me. This has truly been a joy stoking journey for me.
Acceptance, letting go and resilience
And I think that it most certainly confirms for me that the work done on a difficult journey is work with a purpose. One of the things I see in these thoughts and insights from Karin and Chad is acceptance. An acceptance of the uncertainty that life brings and an acceptance that death is part of life. In my interactions with people in my day to day life and in my work, I see this acceptance as a huge strength and wonderful starting point to forward motion. Whether it be an acute condition or a chronic one. A life threatening one or simply a life event. Cancer or Covid-19.
Acceptance can be the start of the journey towards psychological flexibility and this is where the really good stuff starts. Certainly easier said than done but I think even dipping our toes into that acceptance process is the start to building our coping strategies. I remember very clearly in my own cancer journey the day I tried dipping my toes in. I was in my first consult with my oncologist and I remember boldly stating that I realised she could not offer me any guarantees. And so we proceeded to have a very frank conversation. I can truly say that was one of the MOST terrifying days of my life. But what I do know is that I got up the next day and I took a small, hesitant step forwards. I had started to face my reality and this helped me as I stumbled along the bumpy road towards acceptance.
And perhaps when we work on acceptance we can start to claw back some power over our lives by focusing on the things that we can control and letting the other things go. A simplifying process where we measure life according to OUR value systems and incorporate those into our goals.
And all the time moulding and reshaping, perhaps even expanding all of this into a glorious and unique structure – a beautiful thing that Chad and Karin have in bundles – RESILIENCE.
I hope this story about these bold and brave humans gives us all a little perspective and encouragement in these uncertain times. I know it did for me. Stay safe.
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