Catastrophizing

by NotDownOrOut

Feeling snowed under.

Feeling snowed under.

Did I mention that next Friday I have an appointment for a gynecological exam and will likely see the “oh-so-very-NOT-nice” physician’s assistant whose examination of me left me upset for weeks? Did I mention that this has me feeling very anxious–as do all doctors’ appointments?

The best part of blogging has been reading the blogs of people whose situation has been worse than mine. I know how that sounds. But the other bloggers’ sharing has given me a perspective on my own experience that I could not have gotten from my own experience if I chewed on it until it was fully consumed and digested–a process that might have taken my whole life.

Until my diagnosis with cancer, I had never had an operation. I had never suffered a serious illness. The most serious medical procedure done on me was the inpatient removal of a mole that was chafed by a bra strap. The most serious pain I had ever experienced was passing a kidney stone at about the age of 20. That experience proved more humorous than serious.

While I was in the emergency room to determine the cause of my pain the doctor decided to perform an internal gynecological exam to rule out some gynecological problem. Following the exam, I continued lying on the table while I waited for results. Then a hospital administrator escorted a university student into my curtained “bay” so that the student could ask me questions about my use of contraceptives for some classroom statistical analysis. I agreed to answer the questions. The administrator helped me sit up. The nurse had not properly secured the end of the table when she took down the stirrups at the conclusion of my exam.

When I sat up, the end of the table fell down and I was catapulted to the floor. I landed on my hands and knees with the hospital gown open from neck to knees. I landed outside of the narrow confines of the curtained bay. There I was, naked and on all fours, in front of everyone, including someone with whom I went to school.

It goes without saying that there were apologies, and many hands reached down to help me rise, and no one laughed. Which seemed amazing to me at the time, because I could not stop laughing! Seriously, the pain from the kidney stone was the worst thing I had ever felt in my physical life. My hands and knees “smarted” in a way that had me thinking about that old adage, “Come over here and I’ll give you something to cry about.” I was blushing the color of a beet until it seemed every inch of my face might explode. And everyone was looking at each other like it might be the end of the world.

It wasn’t. The adage proved to have some relation to fact. There were worse things than the pain I experienced from passing a kidney stone. I could be in even worse pain, naked, on a germy ER floor, in a down facing dog position as others (one of them a fellow student holding a clipboard) tried to get hold of “something” naked, in an non-salacious manner . . . in an effort to help me stand up. Oh, the perspective this gave me helped me accept many of life’s indignities that have followed.

I still have not had a good cry about having uterine cancer. I am not sure I need to at this point. I was nonplussed when I received the diagnosis. In retrospect, it explained so many things that I had been experiencing such as heavy periods and a late end to menopause. I reacted by trying to put the entire puzzle together. I also had a very fatalistic idea about what it meant to have cancer. I just assumed that my life was over and was trying to figure out what I would need to get done before I died. Making checklists is a hobby. I never did make out that checklist.

The doctors were much more optimistic and they were being extraordinarily negative. Their entire focus at the time seemed to be on my inability to survive surgery because of my blood loss (I needed 8 packs of blood to reach a minimum state of readiness for surgery) and my seemingly poor general health. But one doctor, the head of the internal medicine department, kept coming back to report that I had passed another of his department’s tests. It appeared that I might only have anemia and cancer.

I counted my blessings day and night. I am serious about this. I did not have a book to read. There was nothing I cared to watch on TV, and I had no idea if I was being charged for using it and had no medical insurance. When my sister Kathy flew in from DC she brought me two magazines, a pen, and some paper. I loaned a magazine to my roommate and covered the paper with my scribbled lists of blessings. If my luck had run out, then I wanted to recall that it had been a good run. If the Law of Attraction was at play, then I wanted to be in a positive place to attract good health.

I did not sleep for nearly a week (other than during surgery). The closest I got to it was that micro sleep you sometimes feel happening during a long drive. One minute you are on the turnpike in Indiana and the next minute you are seeing signs for exits to Cleveland and are wondering, “What the hell happened to most of Ohio?” You have been functioning, but not optimally.

I have shed plenty of tears since October 2011. I was devastated to learn that the law school terminated me. Radiation was a nightmare. The week after treatment ended was horrific. To this day I feel like I might have died but for my sister and mom “springing” me from the county hospital. I have never been so afraid or helpless. Recovery from treatment was marginally worse than what I felt while going through six weeks of radiation and chemo. Radiation cystitis had me crying twenty-something times a day in the bathroom until that became such old hat that I just gritted my teeth and endured.

But others’ blogs were like speed markers on the road that let me know I should pace myself on my tendency to manage fear by imagining myself handling the worst case scenario. No one ever knows what will happen next or how she will handle it. And the saddest truth about cancer is that others have handled/are handling much worse than I can imagine on my own. They do manage. Sometimes angrily. Sometimes with frightening resignation. Often with grace, humility, and even humor.

I am covering my mouth with both hands and trying not to cry as I think of what some have shared about their experiences. I know that my odds are good for long-term survival. It was stage one with complicating factors, not the stage three cancer the surgeon first described it to be. It was a slow-growing cancer. There appears to be no evidence that cancer spread or remains. My surgery went very well. I am no longer in daily pain. My other side-effects can be handled.

When I agreed to adjuvant radiation and chemotherapy I did not know that they could one day lead me to another cancer. I was awake, but still in that stage of micro sleep. I just kept driving until I saw signs for Cleveland, one of which is an exit marked Strongsville. I took that exit and have put down some roots. I could spend my days catastrophizing, but that might only make this tougher.

Source unconfirmed

Source unconfirmed

The bloggers who have shared their struggles and victories are daily reminders that I should live in the “now” and not get ahead of myself. Whatever is ahead of me will be handled–ready or not–and handled better if I focus on the present and do not let anxiety rule me.

There was a time when I could laugh at the experience of landing naked and in pain on the ER floor while answering questions about condoms and diaphragms. It’s harder to do that when you’re dealing with cancer. But I still have a sense of humor. And I have been shown by some wonderful people that there are worse situations and that I can face them if I must. Life is worth it until it isn’t. And, even then, there will be hope that life’s ending can be endured.

So, I am every day grateful for the community of bloggers who have so bravely shared their challenges and fears. Without your courage and generosity, I could be wasting my life catastrophizing.

If you have never seen Loretta LaRoche, you should. She is the source of the word “catastrophizing.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggGoe_y5WqA. In that video she talks about how we can sometimes take our tough challenges and magnify them until we become hopeless. Here is a link to a video of her discussing the Joy of Stress: Party Pants, in which she reminds us to embrace life’s adventures rather than always putting joy off. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5tOFdSJZJk. Here’s her video on Pessimism vs. Optimism. http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=kqE9cuWxdqo&feature=endscreen. She uses humor to help people handle stress. Her message is resilience. I think she may also be reading many of the blogs that I read about living after a cancer diagnosis. She seems to understand that we can keep smiling–sometimes for a moment, sometimes for a day, sometimes longer.

Did I mention that next Friday I have an appointment for a gynecological exam and will likely see the “oh-so-very-NOT-nice” physician’s assistant whose examination of me left me upset for weeks? Did I mention that this has me feeling very anxious–as do all doctors’ appointments? Maybe I’m already feeling better because of the messages of hope in so many other people’s blogs.