How I Turned My New Normal Into A New Life

Le plus important en fin de compte, ce ne sont pas les cartes qu’on vous a données, c’est ce que vous en faites…C’est la leçon que j’ai apprise de mon expérience avec le cancer et c’est le sujet de mon nouvel article pour I Had Cancer! Ihadcancer.com
 
What really matters in the end, is not really the cards you are dealt but rather how you play the hand…This is the lesson I have learned from my experience with cancer and that’s the topic of my new article for I Had Cancer! Ihadcancer.com
 
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When I got diagnosed with cancer in the midst of my 30s, I did not let the news bring me down. Instead, I immediately turned into a brave little soldier and accepted all the treatments that were thrown my way without flinching. I was convinced that I would win this fight and that life would just be brilliant afterwards.

But unfortunately this is not what happened… Indeed, when the euphoria that followed the end of the ordeal died down, it finally hit me. My body was still not in as good a shape as it has been and no matter how hard I tried or wanted it to happen, I just could not fit back into my old life. And, if at first I was just happy to celebrate my friends’ weddings, baby showers and professional successes, I began feeling like my life was passing me by and that I was becoming a mere spectator who was not allowed to have their share of the cake.

It was as if all the repressed fears and pains were slowing coming out. I started suffering from insomnia and getting stressed over menial things. I became angry more quickly and began losing interest in some of the things I used to love. I basically felt that I no longer had any control on what would happen to me and was terrified that my cancer would come back. Mostly, and it took me a while to admit it, I was feeling vulnerable because of what had happened to me.

I felt ashamed because I was one of the lucky ones. So many of my fellow cancer fighters had lost their battle while I had been given a second chance, so who was I to complain? And with nobody around to listen to my worries, for my family and friends had already turned the page and moved on, I had to find the resources within myself to give a new meaning to my life. And this is how I adopted my 3-way plan to make the most of what I had been left with.

It started with taking some baby steps. I first had to accept that I was no longer the same person I used to be, and that it was okay if I was not able to bounce back in a day. I had been through a lot and I needed to acknowledge the changes cancer had brought to my life before I could accept them. I was no less of a person because I needed time to grieve. I therefore allowed myself to cry, and I did cry a lot at that time, or vent my frustration. But at the same time, I also made sure to pat myself on the back when I was making progress, or to be forgiving when I did not.

Little by little, it became easier to start planning a future based on my new reality and, as a consequence, to lower my expectations. That was the second step. I had always been one of those girls who dreamed big and always wanted more. I now knew that I had fewer options but did not want to let those unfortunate chances hold me back any more. Life is full of opportunities once we no longer let ourselves be burdens by the standards imposed by society. It is way easier to take a new direction without the pressure to necessarily make the most of our existence.

It is way easier to take a new direction without the pressure to necessarily make the most of our existence.

I thus left the stressful corporate world and a job that had become meaningless for a position in a small governmental entity. This may be less glamourous on paper, but it gives me the impression that I am finally making a difference in this world.

With a new purpose in life, the third step was to simply count my blessings. I now make a list every evening of all the good things that has happened to me over the last 24 hours. If I first started with some very little things, I now have the impression that my life is made of many beautiful moments – whether it is simply a splendid sunny day or a nice lunch with a friend.

After all, what really matters in the end, is not really the cards you are dealt but rather how you play the hand.

What have you done to take back your new normal?

Photo courtesy of Jason Briscoe.

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This Is Why I Chose to Receive Cancer Care in France

On m’a demandé d’écrire sur mon expérience avec le système de santé français lors de mon combat contre le cancer…Voici mon récit pour IHadCancer. I have been asked to write about my experience with the French Healthcare system during my battle with cancer…Here is my story for IHadCancer!

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Getting cancer is hard enough in itself and patients should never have to worry about money during those difficult times. So when I found out that I had cancer, I left behind my beloved American life to go back to my native France.

“If I ever got cancer, I would immediately go back to France.”

This is what I would always say to myself whenever I was upset or felt a little homesick. It was meant as a joke. After all, I was in my early thirties, was healthy and living the American dream to the fullest. But even though I could not imagine my life anywhere else other than in San Francisco (where I had already spent nine years), I knew that a life-threatening illness could put a serious dent in one’s budget. Little did I know then that this dreadful hypothetical would present itself to me.

I was in France when I received my cancer diagnosis and suddenly there was no other place where I wanted to be. I needed to be near my family and surrounded by people who spoke my native language. I was terrified and felt like a little girl, so I needed reassurance and the absolute certainty that I would understand every single word that would be thrown my way. But more importantly I wanted to use any and all resources I could to receive the best care through the most affordable avenue possible.

Because I am a French citizen, I was still covered by the French healthcare system. Being a welfare state that spends 56% of GDP on public spending, my higher tax rate translated into 70 percent of all my medical bills being reimbursable by France and my private insurance picked up the remaining 30 percent. The French state has more control and a commitment to transparency that affords them greater bargaining power to keep prices low.

Even though I didn’t have the “carte vitale” — the country’s method of payment for State medical expenses that provides automatic reimbursement — I was still qualified for the coverage. My only catch was that I had to pay the costs upfront, but even then, France’s medical payers system allowed me to get my reimbursement within five to ten business days. Also in France, the sicker you are the more coverage you get. So if you have a long-term illness that requires a long treatment such as cancer, all the costs for surgeries and therapies are picked up by the government. As long as I followed my doctor’s orders I did not have to spend a dime, whether it was for a medical appointment or a cab ride to the hospital.

Only the expenses that were deemed “sources of comfort,” like the wigs or an individual room, were not totally covered, but then again most of them were paid by my private insurance. And after a full year of treatment I do not believe that I have paid more than $400 from my own pocket.

I was also considered an “absolute priority” patient and thus did not have to wait for any examinations. I had a biopsy the day after my gynecologist found a suspicious lump in my breast and the surgery to remove the tumor took place barely two weeks after I was diagnosed with cancer.

A real first-rate system, yes, but the French system is first and foremost the most humane! It is regaled by the World Health Organization as the “close to best overall health care” in the world. For me, it is still almost too good to be true. When my doctor gave me the all clear I told her that having been unproductive for so long, it was high time for me to start paying my due to society. But she didn’t laugh with me. She told me in a matter-of-fact voice that “Our health care system may be expensive and the taxes raised to maintain it may be high, but seeing people as young as you getting a second chance makes it totally worth it.”

Fighting cancer is never a walk in the park, so not having to think about money during this difficult period was an enormous gift. I feel very blessed to have been able to focus on one thing only: my well-being.

Photo courtesy of Gianluca Cosetta.

Dear Doctors, Thank You For Your Beautiful Bedside Manner

Mon hommage à l’incroyable équipe médicale qui s’est battue avec et pour moi (Article publié sur IHadCancer). My tribute to the amazing medical team that fought with and for me (Article published on IHadCancer).

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I was once a normal thirty something gal with a hectic life and full of dreams. But then I heard the word “cancer” and just like that, my life as I knew it was over. I was a cancer patient faced with an uncertain future.

From the day I had found a lump in my left breast to the 5 nerve-racking days spent waiting for the results of the biopsy, I had been in limbo, unable to think about anything else.

But then, with just a few words, delivered in a calm and confident tone, my radiologist helped me feel as though I could handle whatever it was that came my way. He said, “What you have is very serious and the upcoming months are going to be pretty hard, but you are in very good hands, don’t you worry.”

All of a sudden, I literally felt as if I had tumbled into an abyss. Those few words were exactly what I needed to hear at that moment to prevent me from falling apart. I finally knew where to stand and I was ready to fight, because I realized I had a team behind me.

The following few weeks were spent going from one doctor appointment to the next, and I barely had time to digest the news, let alone come to grips with all the consequences of this new reality. But somehow, all along I felt I had an entire army fighting with and for me. Why? Simply because each professional I came across always managed to find just the right word or adopted the perfect attitude that would alleviate my fears.

The kind radiologist who gave me the results was just the first link of this human chain. The surgeon who was to remove my tumour looked like my grandfather, so I trusted him immediately, even though I was terrified. He talked in a very soft voice, using very simple words to make sure I understood him. Even though he pronounced the dreadful word “chemotherapy”, I somehow knew that I would be okay.

After the operation, he entered the room with a huge smile, pinched my cheek in a sign of affection and whispered in my ear that the surgery was a success and the tumor had not spread.

A few weeks later when I told him that I was disgusted by my scars and did not want to even look at them, he gently took my hand and made me gently touch them so that I would start to accept them.

Then there was my psychologist. Every three weeks, a young woman with a Bulgarian accent checked on me and made sure I was holding up. Little by little she became my confidant, the only person in whom I could confide in. She was very sweet but also knew to be tough when I started to feel sorry for myself.

However, all this was nothing compared to the devotion of the nurses. No matter how tough their job could sometimes be or their own personal problems, they always kept a smile on their faces without uttering a single complaint. From 7 am to 7 pm, with only a half hour break for lunch, they ran from bed to bed to attend to their patients’ needs. I used to love chatting with them during chemo sessions. They were impressed that I had worked as a lawyer in California, but for me, they were the real heroes. They went home at night totally exhausted, but at least they had a sense of fulfilment and purpose; a feeling I had never felt with my job, even though my initial goal when I went to law school was to help those less fortunate. That was a big revelation!

Sometimes all it takes in difficult times is finding the right people who will support you during the hardships. Even though having cancer was a painful experience, I got blessed with the most amazing medical team I could have hoped for. Life is all about chance meetings and I strongly believe I would never have been half as strong as I had been, without the support of an amazing support team with great bedside manner.

I could never thank all those people enough for the support they gave me. They may think they simply did what they were paid to do, but four years later, I still carry with me their kind words and strength.

I’m Not a Hero, I Did What I Needed To Do To Survive

 

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Sometimes when faced with a difficult situation like cancer, one becomes somebody else, and can be labeled as some sort of “hero”. But when the mask falls off, the reality is far different. Read more below.

A few weeks after I had finished all my treatments, I had lunch with a girlfriend. She had been present through every step of my battle against the big C and this meal was our way to celebrate my long awaited victory. As nice as it was to reflect on just how far I’d come and to start planning a new future, I realized something: no matter how close people had been to me during this, they would never fully understand what I had been through. Even worse, their perception of me was now totally biased.

It quickly became obvious that my friend saw me as some sort of a hero. She spent the entire lunch telling me how impressed she was of the way I had handled my illness and how she probably would not have been half as strong.

That made me mad. I knew she meant it as a compliment, so I kept my mouth shut, but, inside my head, a little voice was screaming: “But I am not different from you, I am not brave, I haven’t changed, I just did not have a choice, it was my life I was dealing with!”

Even in the new comic superhero movie, Deadpool, the title character is battling cancer and wants nothing to do with the “hero” title. The movie debunks the myth that all survivors are “superheroes”- when a lot of us don’t see ourselves that way. As this article so honestly points out, “Deadpool doesn’t reject being a superhero because it’s cool not to care, but because the meaning of ‘hero’ has shifted.”

To be honest, I didn’t even recognize myself during my long cancer battle. I completely dissociated from the reality of what was happening and it was as if I was floating above, outside myself. As soon as I heard the diagnosis, I turned into a soldier ready to do everything it takes to get better and I fought relentlessly. That was something I had never done before and will hopefully never have to do again.

I blocked off all my emotions as a survival mechanism. I stopped all my tears, tried to focus on the present, only the present, and took everything in stride.

The side effects from the various treatments were intense. I dreaded each new session of chemotherapy. As soon as I stepped inside the hospital, I would put on a brave face and smiled. I was terrified but it was my way of coping with the situation; the only way I knew how to go on.

So, to my surprise, I never once felt sorry for myself and rarely did I shed a tear. I barely cried when my beloved dog, Charlie, passed away shortly after the results of my biopsy. I barely cried when I discovered my scars or saw my new bald self for the first time. And I also barely cried when my friends got married while I was stuck in bed. Or when some turned their back to me, simply because they could not bear the sight of me.

Every day, I did my best to live as normally as possible, not necessarily how a “hero” would. I kept on exercising, nearly as much as possible, because it gave me the impression that I was doing something good for my body. I saw my friends as often as I could, even when having fun was the last thing on my mind, because I needed to convince myself that I was still a normal person. I kept on working for my company, on a part time basis, because it allowed me to think that I was still being useful. And I tried not to be upset when people said stupid things or looked at me in a weird way because I realized that I had to live for me and not according to standards imposed by society.

But when this nightmare finally came to an end, I dreamt one night of my dog Charlie, and the pain became so vivid that I woke up in tears. And for the next few hours, I cried all the tears I had not let out for nearly a year. I cried for all the pains I had been through, I cried for my dog, I cried for the children I would never have, and I cried for all the other dreams I would no longer be able to achieve.

So I am definitely not a hero but just a regular gal who, at a moment in time, had to become somebody she is not, in order to fight for her life.

Have you ever been called a hero for fighting cancer? What’s your opinion on that title? Share your view in the comments below! Deadpool photo courtesy of Sideshow Collectibles.