I am a clinical psychologist on staff at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, I am a certified psychoanalyst, I am well versed in behavioral techniques for addressing anxiety, and I was completely unprepared when I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February of 2014. All of my training and knowledge seemed to vanish in an instant and I felt myself falling through space. I was terrified.
I'll jump to the present day before circling back and describing what followed my diagnosis: My body is currently free of any detectable cancer.
When I reflect back on the path that led to this moment, I think of rock climbers. They have an overall plan, but climbers must focus on whatever they are holding onto at each exact moment. Each move forward is impossible without a foundation of whatever came before. I first grabbed hold of my treatment team. Specifically my surgeon (Dr. John Chabot), my oncologist (Dr. Paul Oberstein) and my nurse practitioner (Marie Garcon), who were warm, patient, caring, and always direct. I could hold onto their steadiness and the idea that they might actually be able to save my life. They devised a treatment plan, and I held onto that next. I moved forward in something of a daze. I put one trembling, petrified foot in front of the other and did what they recommended. My personal choice was simply to put my faith in the treatment team — I didn't need to understand what was happening as long as they did.
My next foothold was perhaps the most obvious, yet biggest surprise of my year of treatment. I had also made the personal choice to be very public with my diagnosis. I told co-workers, and regularly communicated with many friends and family members via a Caring Bridge blog. I still felt as if I was falling through space; I couldn't understand why this had happened to me. In my more private moments I often couldn't find anything to grab on to. But I began to slowly see and feel that I was surrounded, almost held within a web of people who were taking care of me. An old friend put me in touch with an acupuncturist with a specialty in cancer treatment (the wonderful Doug McDaniel, a member of the Wellness Team at the hospital). Close friends started sleeping over just to keep my wife and me company. Friends and family cooked meals for us. And they simply listened and held me when I cried. It took me a while to grasp what was clear to everyone else — this wasn't just concern, it was love. My network of friends and family, via their presence and messages from afar, helped my wife and me through three months of difficult chemotherapy, my surgery and recovery, and three more months of chemo. Sometimes I even laughed about the cancer. Sometimes.
Here I am in March of 2015 doing my best to ignore statistics and deal with my own, very specific reality. I describe myself as feeling like I'm running through a beautiful open field on a warm spring day, mindful that a few old land mines remain buried beneath the earth where I can't see them. I may hit one. I may not. But right now I'm alive with many, many reasons to be hopeful. Plus, I feel a connection to friends and family that would not have become so viscerally present if I hadn't gone though the experiences of 2014. To anyone reading this, especially those with a diagnosis of their own, please notice what you hold onto along the way. I don't think it was my knowledge and training that got me to this point. Rather, it was a kind of connection to others that emerged into something unexpectedly beautiful and transformative.