The Day You Wake Up In Cancerland: A Message For New Arrivals

It could be any day of the year (although it’s less likely to occur on a weekend). It might come as a sudden, unwelcome piece of news dropped into the midst of a time when you’re doing everything right. Or it may be one more goddam thing on top of a mountain of difficulties you’ve been trying to dig yourself out from under—insult added to injury, or the latest injury in a series.

There is no time in anyone’s life when waking up in Cancerland is pleasant, let alone convenient.

The time you spend hanging, when all you know is that you have cancer is fucking awful. You don’t know what to expect but you’ve heard stories, either from friends or maybe from accounts in blogs like this one, and they run the gamut, from nerve-wracking to scary to scary-disgusting-horrifying.

The problem is, you don’t know what to worry about first:

• Getting a doctor who won’t tell you anything, or one that will tell you too much, in such technical terms that you can’t understand what they’re saying;

• What the drugs will or won’t do to you;

• How you’re going to keep up with your life if you’re having debilitating side effects like barfing your guts out;

• If you have achieved a certain level of standing in your career and/or workplace, are you going to lose it because now everyone thinks you’re dying?

• Will management figure you’re a lost cause instead of a valued employee?

• Who do you tell, and when? And how?

• Will your friends still call, still include you?

• What if the treatment doesn’t work?

• Should you try going to a support group meeting or will it be too weird to be so open with people you don’t even know?

• What the fuck? What the fuck? WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK?!

The good news is, I’m reasonably sure that this is as bad as it gets.

I’m not going to promise this is true because one size doesn’t fit all and no one thing is true for everyone. But of all the Cancerland residents I’ve spoken to (which of course is nowhere near all of them), they all describe this stretch of time as being the most stressful psychologically.

For some people, the trauma of being told they have cancer lasts longer than it does for other people. But for most of the people I’ve talked to, as soon as they knew what was coming in the way of treatment—chemo, surgery, radiation, whatever—they felt steadier. And once treatment began and they knew how it was going to feel, they regained a lot of their self-confidence. Part of this was discovering they could deal with chemo, even when it was really rough.

I’m pretty sure it will be that way for you, too, although right now, you may not feel that way. Maybe you’re sneaking away for a few moments to break down and cry, or spiral into an anxiety or panic attack. Then you pull yourself together and jump back into your day, which is already in progress.

That’s okay. Do what you have to do. Your feelings aren’t wrong, and you should handle them however is right for you. If you still feel like doing that while you’re having treatment, go ahead. Don’t let anyone tell you how you should or shouldn’t feel—your life, your rules.

Living in Cancerland is never easy. But dangling in the liminal space between diagnosis and treatment can be the worst you’re going to feel emotionally and psychologically.

Once you get a better idea of what’s ahead of you, however, the world starts to come back into focus and the ground beneath you will feel more solid. Cancerland is not a place where we have control over everything that happens to us but we are still who we’ve always been. We can navigate this terrain on our own terms.

You can navigate this terrain on your own terms.

Uncertainty, not knowing is torture—and that’s not hyperbole. Knowing isn’t going to be easy or stress-free—on the contrary! Treatments designed to kill cancer are rough on people and there’s no guarantee the news will be good when you come out the other side.

But you can deal.

Maybe, due to circumstances beyond your control, you’ve always had to be strong but this is not only unexpected, it’s completely beyond your experience. Or maybe you’ve never really thought of yourself as being especially tough and you’re wondering how the hell you’re going to cope. Or maybe you’re somewhere in between. However you see yourself, read the words below, and believe them:

You can handle it. You’ve got this. Whatever it is, however it comes out: you’ve got this.