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Why cancer is a mental illness

October 17, 2010

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=mental+illness&iid=5289858″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”237″ /] I supposed you might think from the title that I’m encouraging cancer patients to have a positive mental attitude to “beat” their disease. Not at all. Studies show that the positive and the negative have equal survival times, it’s just that the chipper and cheery are easier for everyone else to put up with so you want them to live longer. Frankly I find that being peevish with the cancer helps me get through the day.

What I’m talking about is the shear force of mental will you need to keep from jumping off a cliff to avoid the continued torments of modern medical science. Don’t worry, I’m not going to jump off a cliff, stick with me for a minute. What I mean is that I often wonder why I can’t just be left alone to die when I die, without warning, and in relative peace. Instead, in our current version of medicine, one must continually be poked, prodded, and mentally tortured by knowing too much and having nothing one can do about it. I’ve started calling all scans — MRI, CT, PET, etc. — by new initials: TMI (too much information).

Here’s what I mean. Tomorrow I go in for scans from head to toe. Wednesday afternoon I get the results. I will repeat this process every three months for the rest of my life. What happens with me, and a lot of metatstatic cancer patients I know, is that merely scheduling the scans puts you in a deep, dark place mentally speaking. Why? Because when you get the results you hear one of three things: “It’s the same. Come back in three months and we’ll look again,” or “Sorry, the cancer has spread again, you need more treatment that will be worse than the last one,” or “It’s so bad now we can’t do anything about it. Get your affairs in order. Do you  have funeral plans?” Please note that the only really “positive” result I can get from these scan results is that I have to repeat the TMI scans in three months, just when I’m starting to reach some sort of equilibrium, mentally speaking.

Before you say, “Well, lots of people survive cancer now,” please remind yourself that I have technically not survived — at least not in the pink ribbon Komen version of “survivor.” And before you say, “There are lots of new treatments,” remember that I kind-of agree with you; the triple-negative cancer I have is being studied (finally), but it takes about ten years to go from study stage to being in use with patients, and everything that’s being studied for this kind of cancer right at the moment (that I know of) is extremely harsh; no easy and simple “cure” seems to be on the horizon, and ten years is an awfully long time in cancerland.

Every study and every statistic says cancer will kill me, it’s just a matter of when. There are a few people who live with metastatic breast cancer for a couple of decades. They are so rare that they make the news. None of them had it spread to the brain. Most people with my particular diagnosis manage a couple of years. I’m a year out from diagnosis of metastatic disease. The clock is ticking. I’m hoping to beat the odds and make it somewhere in between two years and a couple of decades, but frankly it’s like hoping to win the lottery. And no, I haven’t given up. And no, I never buy lottery tickets because the odds are too poor.

On the other hand, I’m not a statistic. I feel well enough right now that I feel like I’ll live for quite a long time, and so I give myself mixed messages all the time and contribute to my own mental torture. I hope the hopeful part of me is right, but that part gets a pretty good flogging at scan time.

So, that’s the mental wrestling that I and my family get to go through every three months. The good thing about this scan is that I feel pretty good right now and have no symptoms to speak of other than what the chemo pills give me. Then again, I’ve never had a symptom other than those given by chemo. So that’s not necessarily hopeful. However, if I’m feeling good, no matter the scan resulsts, it means that I’ll likely survive for another three months to get to the next scan, and the next scan will be after the holidays.

I have a few options here. I can just say no to scans and press forward. I can request scans every four months instead of every three months. I’ve suggested things like this before. Every doctor I’ve suggested this to has gone pale, and that includes the naturopath. With the type of cancer I have, one must keep close and vigilant watch assuming one doesn’t go completely insane doing so. Meanwhile, I live my life in three-month increments, with all the mental ups and downs that entails.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2010 1:37 pm

    Wugh. Living my life in 3 month increments sounds horrible. Unless, I could live it on a cruise ship, get off, have the scans, get back on the ship, lather, rinse, repeat. And eventually they can just bury me a sea.

    • October 17, 2010 6:10 pm

      Brilliant! I’ll see if I can figure out how to do that.

      • Cristina permalink
        October 18, 2010 12:58 pm

        I could help with that idea! (not that I don’t like you as a co-worker, I just know info) 🙂
        That’s a much better alternative than the quarter-based college schedule I was thinking of (study, cram for finals, take the finals, get the results, go on break, and repeat).

        • October 18, 2010 4:56 pm

          Oh? Do tell (you can pop by my desk.) 🙂

  2. Babs McNeely permalink
    October 17, 2010 2:56 pm

    ROFL Cassie!!!!!!!!!!!

    Jill – I have yet to see an expiration date stamped on person…..

  3. Shari Larsen permalink
    October 17, 2010 3:53 pm

    I’ve been stage IV since 2007, and I can relate to all of that! Very well said Jill!

  4. Murray permalink
    October 17, 2010 3:54 pm

    Hi Mrs. B,

    As always, your in our prayers. I wish I had something wonderfully supportive to say; all I can say is we’re rooting for you.

    Take care – Maria

    • Murray permalink
      October 17, 2010 3:57 pm

      Ha! Just as I hit submit, I saw a typo/grammar error in my comment *you’re* instead of “your” – how embarrassing on YOUR blog of all places! Don’t tell Justin – Maria

      • October 17, 2010 6:12 pm

        I find typos in my posts all the time. Some are out there for months before I notice them. Oh well!

  5. E Lis permalink
    October 17, 2010 7:28 pm

    I am infamous for typos and fine with it 😉 Yeah, I don’t know and I know my Dad is there too – to survive, but have your status monitored doesn’t feel like living… but as one of my Dad’s Dr’s did say and I know I’ve said it before “we are all terminal.” I am not sure at what point that I’d stop hearing more from Dr’s, but I also appreciate those that help us get those extra years or extensions on whatever we thought was possible. Continued prayers, healing white light and good thoughts!

    Thank you for the congratulations on my engagement 🙂

    • October 18, 2010 4:55 pm

      I reminded my oncologist that he’s terminal too. A week or so later he had a tire blow out on the freeway and saw his life pass before his eyes. He “gets it” on a deeper level now — not that he wasn’t sympathetic before.

  6. Sarahtee permalink
    October 17, 2010 8:00 pm

    Thinking of you Jill as you go for this next round of scans,

    Sarah xxx

  7. Bemused Boomer permalink
    October 18, 2010 3:25 pm

    On “60 Minutes” Sunday night, they showed a recently discovered 100-year-old film taken from a cable car in San Francisco just days before the big 1906 fire. People going places, doing things, waving at the camera–all unaware of what was about to happen. I’ve been mulling it over ever since. Life carrying on, despite impending disaster. I suspect the same was true in Pompeii. I know it’s true here in the Coachella Valley, where I live 3 miles from the San Andreas Fault amid constant reminders of what the certain 8.5 temblor will do to us.

    Mainstream medicine tells me I’m doomed from my autoimmune disease if I don’t take their harsh medicines that may do me in before the disease does. The naturopath is holding it off, for now, with his bits of powder.

    Your reaction to the TMI tests makes perfect sense to me. If you’re upright and able to enjoy your friends and family, why waste energy on TMI tests and the outcomes you’ve so cogently outlined? I’m greedy for those shining moments that I get every once in a whild where I just feel like everything is OK. You’ll find the right balance between diligence and torture, and I’l applaud you every step of the way.

  8. Colleen Oates permalink
    October 20, 2010 4:38 am

    Jill, We hope that your results are good today and we are praying for you and the family. God bless you. It is starting to feel like Fall here in St. Louis. How is your weather in Seattle? Love, Colleen and Ed and family

  9. November 10, 2010 10:11 am

    Jill, this hit home with me so much. My cancer is back too…but I’m still in the “what the heck is it and how do we attack it?” merry go round of appointments, tests and procedures. The waiting is awful and eating away at my spirit. The worst is when they say….after waiting over a week for test results…”We have your results…can you come in a week from Friday so that we can give them to you”….bringing about a whole ‘nother round of waiting and worrying.

    Anyway, you are in my heart, my prayers and my best wishes, dear friend. XOXO Ellen from Maine

    • November 10, 2010 10:24 am

      Oh dear, hon. I am so sorry to hear that. I am sending out healing prayers and I think you need to start yelling at your doctors. The word “bozos” comes to mind.

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