When I listen to stories of illness, I often wonder how people manage to live with uncertainty and still maintain a sense of proportion and calm, even a sense of humor. I have the great privilege of caring for patients with cancer and am constantly learning from them what it is like to struggle with the diagnosis and treatment. I also get to observe how they recover a sense of meaning and joy, even in the most dire circumstances.
I recently heard Margaret Zuccotti share her story of living with (and beyond) metastatic breast cancer. Margaret was diagnosed with metastatic inflammatory breast cancer in 2006, after having her third child. She recalls that “mixed in with the misery of metastatic breast cancer, were small moments of joy and feelings of good fortune”. She learned that human connections sustained her through the early months of treatment. Margaret writes, “My life depended on my weekly infusions, but my heart depended on the cards and emails and conversations that helped to distract me from my Tuesday infusion ritual”.
Margaret’s story is inspirational in so many ways: first, because she is a long-term survivor and enjoys good health, and second, because she became an advocate for others living with this disease and the lessons learned from her experience are now benefitting so many who are living with cancer.
Others too have shared the sentiment that simple acts of compassion and connection sustained them during critical times. One of my dear patients referred to her metastatic breast cancer experience as a roller coaster and described the pillars that kept it from crashing: her support from family, friends, members of her support group, and her medical team. Each of us contributed a little, and she felt buoyed by the affection and commitment that were expressed through very simple acts of caregiving.
Australian journalist Julia Baird recently wrote about her experience as a patient diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She wrote she is still ‘grappling with what all this means’. She shared three important lessons:
“Stillness and faith can give you extraordinary strength.”
Talk of brave warriors rang false to her, so instead, she said thinking about “calm” gave her surprising strength.
Locking out negativity and drama while drawing in her family and friends also gave her strength.
She ends by saying she tried to ‘live deliberately’. Her poise was apparently noted by her doctor who recommended that she continue to do so for the rest of her life!
Many of these important lessons were learned the hard way, after confronting a diagnosis of a life-altering illness and an uncertain future. And yet the wisdom expressed in these reflections can help us all to live more fully, to celebrate the simple joys, and remind us to reach out to someone who could use a little encouragement or company. We may not be able to answer all questions or relieve all the fears and anxiety that typically occur in the setting of illness, but we can provide a little calm and a safe space to share a story or two.