Joy in every moment ILLUSTRATION: Tim Furey

Joy in every moment

Fear gives way to hope for a mother battling cancer

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 12/22/2011

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­­Dear Patti,
In the middle of all the Christmas festivities this year, I recently found out that I have breast cancer. I was shocked at first by this unexpected diagnosis because there is no history of breast cancer in my family. 
 
I am experiencing many feelings right now — mostly fear — and often alternate between anger and sadness. I’m especially sad when I think about having to tell my teenage son and daughter. I realize I can’t keep this a secret from them but have decided to wait until after the holidays are over. 
 
I’m starting treatment, and everyone at the hospital has been wonderful. During my last hospital visit, I met an elderly lady with Stage 4 breast cancer. She has been unable to sleep at night and is terrified of dying. She’s 85, has no relatives and lives all alone. And yet in spite of this, she brought chocolates for all of the nurses.  I felt a deep sorrow for this sweet, frail woman and all of a sudden I felt deep gratitude for being alive. I don’t want to run away from my own problem by focusing on someone in a worse situation, but my disease is curable, and I have a wonderful support system of family and friends.
 
My husband is afraid this is some kind of manic reaction, because I’m suddenly so happy to be alive. 
 
I don’t think so. I think I just got my head on straight and realized what’s really important to me. The holiday sights and decorated trees look especially beautiful to me right now, and I’m looking forward to seeing my whole family for Christmas (even my brother’s boring wife). I’m going to attend a support group at the hospital and want to go back to see my therapist for counseling again. It may sound a bit corny, but I love life right now and am so happy to be alive. ~Sue

Dear Sue,
First of all, I’m happy and relieved to hear that they caught your disease in time so it’s curable.  I'm also glad that you're getting the emotional support you need at the hospital as well as good medical care. In the weeks, months and maybe even years to come you’ll have many feelings that ebb, flow and linger as you learn to live with cancer. Your decision to return to counseling is a positive one, and I hope it gives you further strength and insights. 
 
Since I don’t know your psychological history, there is indeed a possibility that you’re a little manic due to all of the emotional turmoil you’ve been under. I tend to agree with you, however, that when all is said and done, you have realized your deepest values in life and what is truly important to you. It’s good that you've been facing your feelings, reflecting on what’s best for your children and, at the same time, reaching out for support for yourself when needed. 
 
Coming face to face with someone in a much direr situation both medically and emotionally has filled you with gratitude for what you have. What’s not healthy about that? 
 
While it’s normal to think about the pain and signs of illness and even death, it’s also important to focus on enjoying every moment. No matter what anyone else is experiencing, this is a very challenging time for you and I encourage you to talk about “survivor’s guilt” with your therapist. 
 
I also understand your wanting to wait until after the holidays to tell your children. But even though they’ll be scared and upset, they might already be sensing that something is wrong. 
 
Telling them the truth when the time is right for you is better than allowing them to imagine the worst and become even more frightened. Encourage them to talk about their feelings and to ask questions about things they don’t understand. 
 
When you have cancer, living each day to its fullest means staying involved in the duties and pleasures of daily living as well as making plans for the future. There’s nothing corny about appreciating your life and everything that surrounds it.
 
You’re right — life is a beautiful thing!
 
Merry Christmas, Sue, and have a wonderful holiday. 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site: patticarmalt-vener.com.

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