After 7 months of medical and surgical appointments, I am finally settling in. Looking back, it all seems a blur– did I really go through all of that? Get diagnosed with Stage 1 Breast Cancer? Go through 2 separate surgeries followed by 4 weeks of intense radiation treatment?
We all know the answer is “Yes!” Had you asked me one year ago if I could have imagined this, I would have said, “Absolutely not. Not in my wildest of dreams!” But life throws us curve balls that we don’t always see coming. Gentle wake-up calls nudge us to stay awake and not get lulled into a sense of complacency. These nudges then become bangs on the head until we finally listen to what our bodies are telling us.
As I reflect back on this medical journey, I can honestly say that I am grateful. Grateful for all of the skilled doctors and nurses who took care of me, my radiologist who called me alerting me of the mammographic findings that night and the ancillary providers who guided me through each step. Last, and not least, I am grateful for my patients. Your letters, notes, prayers and wishes kept me going even through the toughest of times. Knowing that I had a solid support system in place gave me courage and confidence to make it through. No matter what the challenge, you were there to catch me if I fell.
After being diagnosed with cancer, sitting in the gown on the other side of examination table and being vulnerable have given me a deeper sense of empathy for my patients. With this diagnosis, it’s not only made me a better doctor but also a better person.
It’s made me a better doctor by keeping me humbled knowing that I didn’t have all of the answers – I needed to rely on others for their expertise. I had to give up control and trust that all would work out, one way or another. Feeling the pain of intravenous needles inserted in my arm, undergoing biopsies of my breast and recovering from surgeries, all made me keenly aware of what many of my patients have endured. Feeling completely spent at the end of the day while having my radiation treatments allowed me to see how the body needs its rest, no matter how much we might try to fight it. These, as well as many other lessons, have taught me to treat my patients with the highest respect and understanding.
As a person, this adventure had opened my eyes to what I was doing with my life. I was working way too hard, trying to take care of my mom from afar, managing her caregivers and making a new website, all while continuing with my busy office practice. One could say I was on auto-pilot, moving frenetically through each day oblivious to my body, my surroundings and the stress that engulfed me. Whatever your faith or belief in the universe, this experience opened my eyes to glare at the stark reality of the situation. I was human. I was not immune to disease and I needed to deal with this diagnosis.
Many times, we may resort to denial, pretending that it’s not really happening to us. This leads to a potentially more forceful blow which knocks us off our feet forcing us to acknowledge the truth about our health.
I am now seeing what is truly important in life. Our lives are filled with material things, from fancy cars to resplendent houses to extravagant possessions. Many of us may be swept into the current of keeping up with the Jones’. Yes, having enough money is important in some ways . Yet, these physical possessions are fleeting and can be taken away with a blink of an eye. What is of paramount significance, and not financially dependent, is the relationship with ourselves and our health. Without our health, we cannot fully experience the richness of our relationships with our family, our friends and those that surround us. The moments of laughter, joy at seeing a baby born, or basking in the pride of seeing your nephew graduate Summa Cum Laude from college- these are experiences that money can never buy. Without our health, we could not participate and indulge in these experiences that weave the fabric of our lives. I think about the gift of travel to a foreign country, taking a cooking class at Sur la Table or jumping out of an airplane at 13,000 feet! None of these could have occurred without a sound mind and body. Some might say, I wasn’t of sound mind with the skydiving decision and I might agree. I won’t be doing that again and am grateful to have done it and cross that line off on my bucket list.
Through this tumultuous journey, I have become calmer. I’m less likely to sweat the small stuff. I’m learning to take life in stride. In February, I made the decision to move my mother from Mammoth Lakes to a nearby memory care center in Oceanside. Here she is also more calm, secure and being well taken care of. Knowing that she is being bathed, given her proper daily medication and participating in social activities has removed a huge load of stress that laid heavily on my body. I’m able to spend more time with her – watching her smile as we draw or sing during music therapy.
I’m learning to give myself time off – time to get a facial once a month, time off on weekends to just “be” and NOT “be working” on multiple projects. Having experienced an all-inclusive vacation at a beautiful destination resort in May was another eye-opener –I learned that I didn’t have to do everything. I could be the passive recipient of being cared for and let go of the guilt that had thwarted me over the years. Yes, now I deserve this pleasure and indulgence and have another week booked in late October for the same. Woo hoo – I am so looking forward to that!
Ultimately, in the end, it is our responsibility to take care of ourselves. If we don’t, who will? That endless to-do list will always be there. Life’s stressors such as financial concerns, our parent’s ailing health, and lack of time, will constantly surround us. But there is some good news, we have a choice. A choice to focus on things we can control and those we cannot.
I hope that this post inspires you to live every day to its fullest. Be kind to others around you – and most importantly, be kind to yourself!
In health and happiness,
Diana Hoppe, MD