After chordoma: Coping with anger and change

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By Hank Lech

When I was diagnosed with chordoma in my C2 vertebrae, my first reaction was "This is a mistake, I can't have cancer. The x-rays, biopsies and doctors are wrong."

I was the one who was at the gym six days a week doing cardio and lifting weights. I was taking my daughter to Rome and on a cruise in three weeks. I cried, worried, prayed and was mad as hell. I vowed that cancer would not win.  

After my consultation at MD Anderson, I learned that life would be turned upside down and I began to hear about a "new normal." I heard about tracheas, peg and NG feeding tubes, drains, and rods and screws that would hold on my head. To top it off, I'd need two surgeries -- one to get part of the vertebrae out of my back, and another in which my jaw would be split and mouth opened wide enough to retrieve the rest of the chordoma. 

I learned I might not be able to eat, talk or swallow for a quite a while, if ever. I worried that I would come out of the hospital looking like Hankenstein. 

I joked with the doctors, my daughter, family and friends to put my mind at ease. I threw a pre-op dinner with a cancer surgery theme. I tried to have a positive attitude. But I was becoming angrier each day.

After chordoma treatment: Anger over my "new normal"
I made it through two 10-plus-hour surgeries. After the second surgery, the anger really hit. There were things that I was unable to do. I looked like hell, couldn't speak, eat or shower, and I was hooked up to so many tubes. My sister, who was there to help and support me, took the brunt of my anger. Even though I couldn't talk, people knew I was angry.  

I expressed anger to the staff and was so angry with one discharge nurse that I ran away. One of the physical therapists found me. She helped me walk that anger out. But the anger always returned.

Back home in Florida, I had to rely on people to assist me. My incisions were getting infected, and I still had to deal with the peg feeding tube. I wasn't able to work out. Food didn't taste right, I had trouble forming words, my tongue felt odd and I grew tired easily.

I did not sign up for this. I wanted to be back to "normal," not this "new normal." I took out my frustration on my daughter and her mother, who were both so helpful. The smallest of things set me off.

One day, grease splashed and burned me while I was cooking. I screamed, cursed, punched a wall and began to cry. I'd had enough. I couldn't win, and I didn't want to play anymore.

As I regained my composure, my hand began to swell and I phoned my daughter to take me to the ER. I found out that I had broken my hand. I was too ashamed to admit exactly how I'd injured my hand.

My anger came to a head one day with my ex-wife. She recognized that I had anger issues and urged me to talk with someone.

She was correct. I needed to speak with someone -- and quickly. 

The importance of acceptance and talking it out after cancer
I made an appointment with a professional and unloaded all of my fears and frustrations. The issues, the pain, the changes and the anger were put into his lap. 

I found out that what I was going through was normal and not "the new normal." What was not normal was the way I was handling it.

Learning to accept what I'd been through and talking it out was the key to a full and healthy recovery. I began to work on my new post-chordoma normal, spending more time at the gym. Working out as best I could and walking helped relieve my anger.

I spent more time with friends and focused on my faith, which had helped me through my surgeries. When my sister mentioned that I was so much calmer than a year earlier, I realized that I was making progress.

Emotional and spiritual healing from cancer
Cancer brings out so many different emotions, which need to be recognized, talked about and shared.

I wish I would have spoken with MD Anderson's Patient Services when I was there. Being a social worker and former hospital chaplain, I should have realized I needed help.

We cancer patients need to remember that though the physical healing we go through is tough, we also require emotional and spiritual healing -- and there are those who can help.


“An Awakening”

When I was diagnosed with Breast cancer a few years back, I reacted like most who receive a cancer diagnose; first thing came to mind was a “death sentence”. However, I found out later that it was truly “an awakening” for me; even after being diagnosed with colon cancer a few years later. I began questioning God, why would you do this to me? What had I done in life so bad to have this placed upon me? But instead of bemoaning my fate, I decided to look for the positive side of it. There has to be a reason for it all.

I also realized that I was about to face a new beginning, new hope, do and see more with a whole new prospective on life. When I think of the “gift of life” that was given to me, I know that I will develop and gain strength from all my experiences. Even with the complications I now have to live with, and all the struggles I've dealt with my entire life, I still feel truly blessed. For a while, I wasn't happy with the way I looked after my surgery and the pain I had to endure each day, but I decided to snap out of it. I thought about the individuals that are no longer among us. I also realized that there will always be someone worse off than I am. I reminded myself, that I “still have my life” and who am I to complain.

One day I experienced something of a miracle and felt the compulsion to write it down. I turn that experience into a poem and I called it “Peace”. Writing has become therapy for me. I took that poem, along with many others I had composed during my breast cancer period and placed them into book form. I was blessed enough to have that book published and it's titled “True Simple Poems of Life, Faith and Survival”. Later, I had another inspirational children's book published and I'm working on my third. I'm hoping that anyone who has the opportunity to read my poems, get out of them, what I placed in all of them. My poems are from the heart, as real as any could ever be. With the words and phrases of each poem of statement, I wish to make a positive impact on someone who's ill or otherwise, where they could develop the strength to embrace life in a whole new way. I never anticipated becoming a writer, I just became one. I truly believe when you survive a horrific tragedy or a horrible disease as cancer, it's for a reason, “you have a purpose” and I want to live to find find out exactly what that is for me.

That's what I'm all about now, inspiration. I would have never become a writer, producing inspirational poems and stories, if I had not gone through all that I did. I'm a true example that you can survive cancer not once, but twice, providing you catch it in time, have faith and allow that faith to direct your path. I've not saying all will be easy, but you must believe.

Written by,
Karen Rice
x2 Cancer Survivor/Author

Thank you for sharing your experience and hope Karen.

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