When You Learn You Have Cancer – Dealing With Adversity   April 10th, 2011

I have now had about three weeks to come to grips with the fact that I have melanoma, a malignant form of cancer.

The first step after received the call from the dermatologist was a mild form of denial, as in “this is not real, this is not happening to me”. That lasted only a few hours.

The next step, after educating myself about the seriousness of malignant melanoma, was high anxiety, where my breathing became difficult, my heart would pound, and I would get lightheaded and disoriented. That lasted about two days, on and off, and was not at all helped by the cold I managed to catch at the same time (which may explain some of the fuzzy headedness).

My thoughts during those initial days wandered the spectrum of trying to figure out what I all needed to do to settle my affairs if mortality was truly upon me, to convincing myself that the subsequent biopsy would naturally show that I was fine because I had caught the melanoma so early in its growth.

It helped that I spent the five days after my diagnosis at a culinary resort, learning to improve my culinary skill with my wife and children. Being in a kitchen is something I find incredibly therapeutic.

The next hard part was when I dropped my family off at the airport to fly home to Bonaire and headed back to New Hampshire by myself, in advance of a couple of doctor’s appointments.

Less then a week later I found myself in the hospital watching a radio isotope course through the lymphatic network in my thigh into my right groin lymph nodes, and later that day entered surgery to remove a couple of chunks of skin and the targeted lymph nodes (more on that procedure in a day or two).

My wife Linda came back up the day after my surgery, and has been with me since, proving to me that one of the best ways to cope with the stress of bad news is to have the support of loved ones nearby.

As we approached the seventh day after surgery we knew that we would soon be getting the biopsy shortly, and we had been careful not to simply assume they would come back clean, and at the same time left the possibility on the table that the fight wasn’t nearly over yet.

When word came back that the lymph node had cancer in it, it was still a shock, however. That was three days ago, on Thursday afternoon. Since then, we have been on an emotional rollercoaster, subject to sudden outbursts of what we have been called “the weepies”.

But interestingly, the weepies have not been as a result of the fear of mortality, but instead as a response to the incredible words and acts of support from friends and family as we have spread word of the diagnosis. The number of tissues we have literally blown through is stupendous. And, to our own amusement, we have occasionally found ourselves laughing as well as crying at the same time, as one of us has set off the other, with absolutely no self-control possible.

The Real Point Here…

And this rather long introduction brings me to the actual “meat” of this post, namely the yin/yang of adversity and opportunity.

My elder brother, who lives in Berlin, Germany, sent me a very touching e-mail (and brought on the weepies), with a very poignant point, namely that when situations like the one I am going through occur, it makes you reevaluate what is important in life, and what it not, and that that changes your view of the world.

I have always been a believer in the idea that when life throws you a challenge, it also provides opportunities for positive change. What those opportunities are may not always be inherently obvious at first, but time and exploration will reveal them.

It may be tough to imagine what the opportunities are from learning you have a dangerous form of cancer, but I have already come up with several for my particular situation:

– As a result of my choice to not suffer my illness in silence and solitude, and instead sharing my woes with my friends and family, I have learned how many people have cancer survival stories of their own (or of close family members), but which they have not shared with others. Thus, my being open about my condition might help spread awareness that cancer is not something that needs to be kept hidden, which in turn will let future cancer patients feel less scared about their own odds.

– In the last few days I have learned how amazing our friends really are, something that may be easily overlooked as we all too often take our friends for granted and become complacent about our friendships. The tears I have been crying as a result of the weepies when reading messages from our friends, and the calls I have received have been tears of wonder and joy at the genuine love and care our friends have shared, and as such, those tears have been enormously cleansing and stabilizing. While not an actual opportunity, per se, having such a wonderful network of friends is a truly positive thing, one that can only help with healing and balance. Hopefully other friends who at some point end up with unpleasant diagnoses will see this as well, and realize they can count on the support of their friends too.

– I have also wanted to find a good writing project for some time now, but have lacked motivation and inspiration. Being diagnosed with cancer now gives me the time and motivation to write, and share my experiences and observations, with the hope that my writings will get other people to understand that cancer can affect anyone – either as a cancer patient or friend or family of such patients. And, more importantly, that it is not the end of the world when you are diagnosed with cancer (and can even be the start of something new and exciting – or at least interesting).

– While my photographic pursuits (I am presently in a Masters of Fine Arts program in Photography) have been focused on culinary and nature photography, this new adversity and the things I have been learning about are inspiring me to design image series that are centered around making cancer a more approachable and real subject. After all, it is said that knowledge is power, right? More on this as I develop my ideas and concepts.

I think the above examples are just the tip of the iceberg of opportunity brought on by the adversity of learning I have cancer. I have no doubt that I will find even more opportunities from my current situation that will help me turn cancer into just another (survivable) challenge in life that helps me grow and expand my horizons and potential.


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This entry was posted on Sunday, April 10th, 2011 at 20:48 and is filed under Health, Writing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.Both comments and pings are currently closed.

16 Responses

April 10th, 2011 at 21:01
kelly Says:

I am in awe of your clarity and strength ! k

April 10th, 2011 at 21:06
Carole Says:

Hi, Jake! From lemons we get lemonaid. Very touching, very moving words. You are right…cancer is not something to “hide” any longer. I have sent your piece to my cousin, Donna, who recently was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her lymph nodes were “clean” but she still had to undergo a partial mastectomy, radiation treatment and reconstructive surgery. That is the physical part. We are working on the mental and emotional part together. She lives alone in Florida. She will house sit for us while we are on island in May. Will bring her up here earlier for a nice visit if her surgeon clears her for the visit. Positive attitude is key in beating this disease and wellness. We’re here for you. If you & your family need anything please don’t hesitate to reach out. Bless you. Hugs, Carole Baker & Joe WArd

April 10th, 2011 at 22:06
Ruth & Ken Says:

Jake, Ken and I just want you to know we are pulling for you! Prayers and love to you and your family. The support system that we have been witness to, with Linda and the kids is amazing and I know you will all be the stronger after you come through this. Carole is right, attitude is the number one enemy. Again, this is something that we have seen from you and your family. Optimism runs deep with you.

Prayers up! We WILL be praying!

April 10th, 2011 at 23:02
Jenna Says:

I have a confession to make. After thinking over your diagnosis, one of the positives I came up with was what you were about to give back to the world. And, without you even thinking about it, with your first post about the diagnosis, you’ve already started.

For anyone who googles your particular illness, they will here forward have an AMAZING account of what to look for, what to expect, an honest account, etc… I can’t imagine you going through this and not sharing all the resources you’ve found and decoding all the medical mumbojumbo (<— technical term). For those of us who read technical stuff and see an alien language, that's huge.

April 10th, 2011 at 23:26
Greta Says:

I am a firm believer that good stuff can come out of life’s challenges if we keep a positive attitude. Loved your article and looking forward to reading more! We love you “Big Jake!” :)

April 10th, 2011 at 23:42
Timmy Says:

Very Powerful Jake – Thoughts and Prayers and kick that C in the ass.

April 11th, 2011 at 00:57
Mark Sage Says:

Rock on, brother! Good that you are writing, it’s very cathartic. Hugs to you & the family.

April 11th, 2011 at 06:40
Vince D Says:

Sorry to hear of your diagnosis Jake. We are wishing the best for you as you tackle this disease.
The many advances in medicine in dealing with this over the last 10 years and you positive attitude together with an early dx all bode well.

April 11th, 2011 at 08:09
Judy Workman Says:

We’re praying for you Jake, and Linda and your family. We’ll be on island May 7-21. If there’s anything you need please contact me. It’s been a while since we met, but I’ve followed your travels and good news these many years. I look forward to more good news from you and wish you strength in your current fight.

April 11th, 2011 at 10:16
Dad Says:

Son, dear:
After the first three days I thought I used up all my tears. However this writing of yours proved that I was wrong. I believe in you, in your ferocity, Jake, in your wisdom, your proven ability to win even in the worst situations. And you will succeed and all of us will receive that great news as the most treasured present from Heaven. I love you, Jake. Oh boy, how much I love you…


April 11th, 2011 at 19:04
Pat and Mary Says:

Jake, you and your family are in our thoughts and prayers. you are truly an inspiration. the strength all of you are showing should set an example for all of us. to quote my cousin, an oncologist in boston, “cancer is a shitty disease…but it can be beat”. hang in there. let us know if there is anything we can do.

April 11th, 2011 at 22:38
Maggie Says:

Rich and I will be praying for you and Linda and your kids. I was so glad to get your fb invite and then saw your recent posts which led me to your blog.
I hope these words will encourage you. “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.” 2 Thessalonians 3:16

April 12th, 2011 at 15:42
Katherine Miller Says:

Jake, Thanks so much for writing about your ordeal! It is helpful to bring cancer out from under the rock. And I love your response that the first thing you do when confronted with this awful news is find out all you can about the cancer. I’m sure you will beat it. One thing I have learned from all Jays health problems is that the body is an incredible mechanism–finely tuned and capable of adaptions. There is always a workaround or one more way to solve the problem. We will be thinking of you.

April 27th, 2011 at 20:58
Gayle Gregson Says:

I just had to let you know that having been diagnosed with Gestational Trophoblastic Disease last November I can very much relate to all you have said. Having cancer should not mean hiding in the shadows throughout treatment. I know your words will help a lot of people to understand both the science and the strength of spirit needed to fight this.

April 29th, 2011 at 15:42
Jake Richter Says:

Gayle – thanks for your support, and confirmation that you and I are not alone in the world with our diseases. Let me know if we can do anything for you, Robert, and Cara. After all, it’s only a small ocean between us :-)


January 17th, 2012 at 05:58
surgical excision Says:

surgical excision…

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