As we approach the Passover holiday, we recall the journey that the Israelites took when they left Egypt, a journey that took them from a place of familiar (albeit enslaved) circumstances to a wilderness of unfamiliar twists, turns, and obstacles. Their guidance system? A Cloud, a symbol of God’s presence, which guided the Children of Israel through the desert. As they traveled on this difficult journey, they quickly learned that there were to be many unexpected detours, obstacles, and challenges to be faced. When they mistrusted the process of the journey, the results were certainly not great – especially when their resistance led to the building of the golden calf. Difficult and variable journeys can be hard to navigate, especially when they present undesirable turns or unanticipated delays, but trust in the process can be so effective in managing the challenges.
Michelle Stravitz, a Sharsheret Peer Support Network participant, shares her cancer experience, mirroring this theme of unexpected journeys when facing a cancer diagnosis. Her message is timely as we are about to sit at our Passover Seders and contemplate past and future life journeys.
I don’t really like the GPS in my new car. With my old GPS, I could press just one key and the route would be listed clearly and concisely, step by step; and as a result, I would know the full route just when I began driving. I knew not only the next step and when to anticipate it, but the entire route, all the steps I was to encounter, when, and for how long. With my new GPS, I get a clear, colorful map of the road I’m on and the next turn to make, but not a route list. I miss my route list!
I’m a planner. I always plan my week’s work carefully, our vacations down to the day, my children’s b’nai mitzvah weekends well in advance. I plan ahead for family dinner menus, schedules, even my own exercise regimen.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, thankfully the doctors laid out a clear 9-month treatment plan. First, I would have 5 months of chemo, followed by surgery and 6 weeks of radiation, with a little time to heal in between and after each phase of treatment. Despite the shock, the fear, the overwhelming amount of new information that I had to absorb and the new reality to which I had to adjust, the step by step plan that was laid out in front of me was comforting. I had a plan to cling to. A way through this nightmare. A road map.
But when the plan changed along the way; or a sudden detour, unexpected bump, sharp turn in the road, or change in direction came up and the doctors weren’t sure what to do with the information, now that was really tough. Whether it was a new pathology report, a second opinion, an unexpected complication from surgery, the announcement of a new clinical trial or the results of a new study, suddenly my GPS was RECALCULATING. And recalculating. And recalculating. The hardest part was the recalculating phase- waiting for answers, for clear directions from my medical professionals, for test results to come back, for decisions to be made. It was so hard not knowing what was coming next, what was expected of me and what my newest reality was going to be. It was, at best, unnerving; and at worst, terrifying.
While the GPS was recalculating, my mind would work overtime on the possibilities: Would there be more chemo? Would I need some new medication? Was this side effect permanent? How would I adjust? What was my next step? What would that look like for me, for my family, for my future?
Sometimes, despite the difficulty of what is to come, it is comforting to have a plan. When that plan suddenly changes – or worse – it needs to change but isn’t set yet, a patient can feel unnerved, unsettled, and uncertain. Truly, there was enough uncertainty with the diagnosis of breast cancer, with the fear of recurrence, with unknown long-term side effects of treatment, I didn’t need any more uncertainty or fear in my life.
But recalculating is often part of the breast cancer experience. It’s simply part of life. Not everything goes according to plan- or I wouldn’t have gotten breast cancer in the first place! Like everything else on this rollercoaster ride, it’s how we cope with the changes, the new information and the period of recalculating, that really matters. For me, I had to learn to suspend the need for that GPS route list. I had to stay in the moment, to focus on one day at a time, to use mindfulness and to think only about the step at hand, the street I was currently on, and maybe, just maybe, the one immediately after that. And, while terrifying and unnerving at times, it was also somewhat liberating. I would ask myself, “Am I okay at this moment?”, “Are my kids okay at this moment?”, “Am I surviving at this moment?” And if the answer was yes, then I was okay. At this moment. For this step. For this one turn.
Eventually, the GPS would figure out the new route, and tell me my next move. ONE. STEP. AT. A.TIME.
Michelle Stravitz is the CFO of Spectrum Management Consulting, Inc, a PCI-Certified Parent Coach, and the mother of four children, ages 15-23. Michelle connected with Sharsheret in the summer of 2015, shortly after being diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer, Stage 2, and serves as a peer supporter for other women like herself. She is the co-founder of TwoUnstoppable, an organization which promotes and supports fitness for women with and after cancer through a buddy program. She has appreciated Sharsheret’s incredible support, most especially her Sharsheret counselor’s wealth of metaphors to help her see her way through different phases of treatment (and worry!) and most recently the incredibly insightful webinar on the Emotional Rollercoaster of Survivorship.