10 Practical Tips for the First 10 Days of Cancer.

{Photo: Burr Tupper / Caitlin Marcoux}

{Photo: Burr Tupper / Caitlin Marcoux}

If you’re reading this you probably have cancer. Or perhaps you have a friend or loved one who’s been recently diagnosed. Maybe you have a colleague who’s fighting the fight. Chances are either you or someone in your life has been affected by this undiscriminating disease.

If you’re like me, you’ve lost some people to the big C and now you’re getting familiar on a first hand basis.

The early days of a new relationship with cancer are tough. You’re just getting to know each other, and the circumstances around your courtship happen at breakneck speed. The following list is by no means definitive; just a few things I’ve picked up along my newbie way.

 

1. Bring A Friend.

{Friends ~ Photo via Pinterest}

The unveiling of a new cancer diagnosis and the subsequent myriad of information that cascades over your unprepared brain is overwhelming. Like being submerged beneath a waterfall, it can be difficult to tune into any input other that the deafening sound of water rushing over your ears.

A good friend will help you shake the water out of your head, and come back to reality. They can also take got down important information, run interference when you need an emotional time-out, hold your hand or rub your back and be in charge of those all-too-easy to loose hospital garage parking tickets. 

When I traveled to the Avon Breast Cancer Center for my most recent “routine” mammogram follow-up, I didn’t really think that cancer patient was going to be added to my resume. After all, I’m a 36-year old, green juice drinking, vegetarian yoga teacher. I thought women under-40 who exercise religiously, don’t drink, smoke or eat meat, and use only bio-friendly household cleaners aren’t supposed to get breast cancer, right?

So I told my boyfriend to stay at home and brought my friend Megan with me. I thought I’d be told, just as I had the last three times in a row, to get another mammogram in 6 months and we’d be on our way to Newbury Street for an afternoon of shopping and be home in time for dinner. Man, was I wrong…

Thank God Megan was there, because when the NP came in and said “So, you have cancer.” I had to focus all my attention on my childhood friend’s familiar face to keep from disassociating my way into a panic attack. Of course it would have been just as reassuring to have my partner with me, but I have to admit there was something really empowering about having my dearest girlfriend with me. We’ve been best friends since we were five years old.

Cancer will try to break you down, but there’s no way it can’t break a sisterhood bond. We shared champagne and a hotel room that night, and my new diagnosis didn’t seem so insurmountable.

***

2. Use Your Smartphone.

Smart phones are one of the greatest inventions of the digital age. These compact devices pack a powerful punch and become invaluable tools in your cancer toolbelt. Forget your Garmin? Just use the navigation system on your phone, and you call up directions to anywhere you need to go.

Use the search options to find hotels near your hospital, connect you to coffee shops, dry cleaners, laundry mats and places to eat, and with the new integration between Google Maps and Yelp you can immediately review any near-by establishment and find out if it’s really worth investigation. 

Many of us already use our phones to find our way around, take photos, and listen to music, but have you ever actually used the audio recorder function? This function can be a newbie cancer survivor’s best friend. Just remember, full disclosure is an ethical imperative. Ask your Oncologist if it’s okay to record your next appointment, and stop worrying about on-the-spot note taking!

***

3. Travel Wisely & Be Prepared.

keep-calm-and-pack-your-bags-5

The right cancer gear is key: a great bag, a small cooler and a piece of rolling luggage are the perfect combo for your diagnostic visits or trips to chemotherapy.

If you have breast cancer like I do, say good-bye to your old school messenger bag. I’ve been carrying my mine around the country since graduate school, but if I wear it now it either presses on the tumor in my right breast, or drags across my newly implanted portocath on the left. There’s no winning. So it’s staying at home from now on.

Even if you don’t have breast cancer, messenger bags are best left for co-eds. Now that you have cancer (of any kind), consider yourself in the Doctoral Program of Life, and upgrade yourself to something a little more befitting of the Professor in Residence that you are. A combo of small brief case/attache bag or tote and a carry-on size roller bag are perfect for your infusion visits. I use the Patagonia Lightweight Travel Tote and the Patagonia MLC Wheelie.

In the first couple of weeks of your new diagnosis, you’ll want to be prepared for the random surprise over-night stay. 

Your new wheelie should be packed with an emergency change of clothes, a couple of pairs of underwear (they take up so little space you might as well), extra socks, pajamas, and toiletries.

If you´re not traveling that far from your home to your hospital and getting all the way home is not an issue, it’s still a good idea to bring a toothbrush and toothpaste. My first couple of diagnostic visits to MGH (Massachusetts General Hospital) were 8+ hour long events. Freshening up my mouth would have felt great!

During chemo visits, bring a small cooler bag, like the PVC, phthalate and led-free bag by So Young Mother. Find freedom from down-beaten hospital food and pack your own uplifting lunch and snacks.

If you’re too tired or rushed to pack your own, call your favorite to-go spot and order a picnic lunch ahead of time. Every time I trek from Nantucket (my home) to Boston now I stop at The Green and pick up a green juice and organic picnic lunch. This way I can bring a favorite part of Nantucket with me, and feel good about my nutrition all at the same time.

***

4. Do Drugs.

Don’t be afraid or ashamed to call your Primary Care Physician for some pharmaceutical assistance. I know that might be a controversial statement, especially in certain circles—but this is not the time to be a martyr, hero, or suffer through any unnecessary discomfort. You have cancer. It sucks enough already.

So there’s no point in being caught off guard, whether it’s because of a headache or an anxiety attack or an unexpected procedure. It’s better to be prepared. Take this from someone who’s been living an exemplary clean life these past few years, and rarely reaches for something stronger than an Advil.

Taking an Ativan before a full day of diagnostic procedures (bone scans, CTs with contrast, and MRIs) goes a long way towards making an unpleasant experience tolerable. It certainly helped me immensely during my first 10 days of cancer and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Just a couple of days ago I arrived at MGH for my first chemo infusion, only to be surprised by a last minute lymph node biopsy. This is not a procedure performed under general anesthetic, or even that trippy “twilight” sleep they talk about.

If I had been just as prepared ahead of time as I had been the week before, I would have not only taken an Ativan for the anxiety (which I forgot in my aforementioned uncomfortable messenger bag) but I would have also taken some ibuprofen for the torment I was about to endure. I don’t care who tells you it’s a cake walk, a needle deep in your armpit is not pleasant.

A little prophylactic pharmaceutical comfort will go a long way towards easing your discomfort and building your metal fortitude. 

 

***

5. Build Your Team.
{Photo: Cailtin Marcoux}

{Photo: Cailtin Marcoux}

If you’re under the impression that you can do this alone, give it up. No man or woman should be an island, especially when it comes to cancer.

You need a solid team.These teammates are the family and friends who are going to be fighting with you, on the front lines. Choose them wisely, and appoint them well.

Having an inner circle of cancer ninjas will give you strength. Appoint a Secretary, Treasurer, PR Manager, Insurance Guru, Domestic Goddess and Hand Holder. Your PR manager can help you send out a cancer newsletter to the people in your community you care about but don’t have enough time or energy to reach out to personally. Websites like CaringBridge.org  allow you to do the same thing while also becoming networking opportunities that protect your privacy more than traditional networking sites like Facebook.

Of course, the very most important person on your team is going to be your Secretary of Defense & Homeland Security; your primary healthcare advocate. This person is typically a spouse, partner or family member. They should be willing and able to take charge of your “situation” at a moment’s notice.

They possess a no-holds-barred imperative to speak up for you and your well-being. This person will not apologize for getting the job done by any means necessary. They should be able to give amazing hugs, find organic fruit in a hospital and make you laugh when an IV is being stuck into your arm.

Internet savvy friends can be charge of organizing food donations or childcare support online. One of my friends used SignUpGenius.com to schedule meals for me and my family and my other friends used Rally.com to start and handle financial donations. Your web advocates can drive traffic to your fundraising website via Facebook and Twitter, or help you set up a widget for your own site, or your employers site.

***

6. Get Yourself & Your Resources Organized.

You will be inundated with pamphlets, brochures, prescription printouts, discharge papers, authorization forms, and information packets. Designing a way to organize all your cancer materials can be empowering and will streamline your mission: getting healthy fast.

Print up a list of important phone numbers, emergency contacts, volunteer babysitters, and even plant waters should you be unexpectedly away from home for more than a couple of days. Make a calendar with all your doctor’s appointments, tests, infusions and follow-ups. Color code things, use stickers, be creative. Chances are you’re going to carry this thing around with you for a while, so you might as well make it nice to look at.

Many hospitals have all kinds of resources for cancer patients but it’s not always easy to find them. The posters and flyers hanging on your oncologist’s cork board will have a way of blurring over while he’s discussing the best way to attack your invasive tumor. Information reaches critical mass, and you might find yourself blowing off other wellsprings of guidance.

An Oncology Social Worker can help you navigate your way around your assistance options. My hospital, Mass General, offers financial counseling, fertility counseling, the PACT (aka Parenting At a Challenging Time) program, Palliative Care, support groups, a Networking for Patients and Families program, Chaplaincy, and classes in Chemotherapy, Acupuncture, Yoga, Music, Nutrition, Art, and Caring for Yourself.

Additionally your social worker can give you information about discounted hotels and travel assistance. My social worker hooked me up with PALS, Patient AirLift Services, a volunteer organization which arranges free air transportation for individuals in need of medical diagnosis or other “compassionate needs.” Last week, PALS coordinated with Cape Air, who generously flew me from Nantucket to Boston for Chemotherapy.

***

7. Clarify your Social Media Intentions.

Decide how personal you want to be about your illness before you start posting it on Facebook. If you’re in a relationship, discussing this with your partner beforehand is a good idea too. Be on the same page, it will spare you drama and frustration.

If you decide to go public with your diagnosis and story, Facebook can miraculously put you in touch with other people who share your challenges.

Just this week I’ve met three other women who have survived breast cancer, and without so much as talking to them on the phone, I now feel like we share a deep common bond. When my chemo side effects kick up the cancer sisterhood is only a PM away.

But try to avoid the pitfalls of wasting too much precious time on pointless threads or status update voyeurism. It will zap you, tax you, and may even create jealousy or resentment. You need your energy now more than ever, don’t fall down a social media rabbit hole. 

***
8. Practice Yoga.
{Caitlin Marcoux / Photo: Robert Sturman}

{Caitlin Marcoux / Photo: Robert Sturman}

 

Some combination of meditation and asana, or just meditation or just asana will serve you well in your fight. If you approach your practice the same dedication you use for brushing your teeth, you can make your practice a vital part of your treatment and healing plan. Focusing on your breath will help you stay calm under stormy circumstances.

Sitting tall in meditation or getting grounded through your legs in standing poses will help you slow down and stay focused on the present moment. Twisting will help you detoxify. Opening your heart through backbends will help you use your illness to cultivate deeper compassion for yourself and others.

Not feeling well enough to get to class? If you have an iPad, tablet or laptop, get yourself to a virtual studio. There are some amazing teachers out there who offer their classes online. My teacher, Elena Brower, has a number of beautiful meditations on YogaGlo. These can be done in a chemo chair, with earphones on, and no one else will be the wiser.

***

9. Create a Sacred Space.

Chemo rooms are nothing special. Creating a sacred space for yourself can soften the sterility of the hospital experience and can be as simple as bringing a few special personal items from home or as involved as setting up a mobile alter.

For my first infusion I brought a small statue of Ganesha (the Hindu god and Destroyer of Fear/Remover of Obstacles), a rose quartz heart (a gift from my teacher), a beautiful aromatherapy eye pillow, my journal, my Lotus Wei Quiet Mind Energy mist and a few cards from friends I had saved to open for strength on that day. The intentional placement of each item helped me to feel in control of my surroundings and participatory in the healing that was about to take place.

My bedroom altar is a much more involved version with many symbolic pieces I’ve collected both BC (Before Cancer) and AC (After Cancer) and it gives me positive energy, courage and joy.

***

10. Stay Sexy.

This can be a tall order, but I’ve learned the hard way, that putting a little effort into your appearance can go miles towards helping you feel more confident and self-assured. During the diagnosis phase of cancer you may simply not have the chance to freshen up. But as you embark on treatment you have an opportunity to uplift yourself every time you get dressed.

On my first trip to Boston for chemo, I was possessed by the Easter Bunny. For some reason I thought it was a good idea to put on a pair of bright pink terry cloth Juice Couture track pants, a white cotton t-shirt, a pink om scarf and my Uggs.  As I was running out the door I traded in my full-length black down coat for my lighter jacket—which incidentally was bright green! I was so caught up in getting to the airport on time for my flight I didn’t even brush my hair. Not a good look.

Even though no one else at the hospital gave me a second glance, I felt disheveled and awkward. I vowed to myself that in the future I would dress elegantly and project outwardly the inner strength and confidence I was hoping to harvest inwardly.

Dress the way you would for an important date with destiny. Whether it’s your favorite pair of skinny jeans and some cowboy boots or a beautiful dress and smart blazer, wear something that makes you feel rich.

Even if you can’t be bothered to put on make-up you can always bring a small stick of mascara with you. And remember, If you pack your roller bag wisely, you can bring a cozier, more hospital bed friendly pair of sweatpants or jammies, should you need to change.

So far cancer is a wild ride with one hell of a learning curve.
May we all stay open and receptive to the lessons is has to teach us.
Ed’s Note: If you are familiar with cancer  (as a friend, patient or caregiver) and you have any personal advice and tips for newbies, drop it in the comments. Let’s use our collected wisdom and interconnectedness to inspire, educate and uplift each other as much and often as we can. 

 

 

More Cancer Warriors: 

>> Five things I learned from cancer.

>> My wife has cancer…Now, what do I do? {Lessons from a Caregiver}

>> An open-source cure for brain cancer.

 

 

{Cancer Army}

 

 

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Caitlin Marcoux
Caitlin Marcoux is a mother, yoga teacher, writer, massage therapist and cancer survivor. She lives on the tiny Island of Nantucket, MA, year-round with her partner and her 4-year-old satguru Griffin, where she is an advocate of prenatal yoga, midwifery, elegant tattoos, rockin’ music, and living mindfully. Caitlin is the creator of Strong Girls Yoga, and teaches a variety of regularly scheduled classes at The Yoga Room. A former modern dancer, she fuses her passion for music and dance with yoga, keeping her flow creative, playful and fresh. Caitlin has written for Rebelle Society, elephantjournal.com and blogs about her practice on and off the mat regularly. A stand up paddle enthusiast, Caitlin recently took her yoga practice off the mat and onto the water; opening Nantucket SUP Yoga in June. She is currently working on a memoir about using yoga to navigating breast cancer. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

39 Comments

  • Sherry Copeland commented on April 3, 2013 Reply
    Yet another insightful and beautifully written piece by Caitlin. Because she is willing to share her experiences, feelings, fears, and pain we are all able to benefit from this wisdom. May she continue to shine brightly during her fight and survivorship!!
  • Mamaste
    Mamaste commented on April 3, 2013 Reply
    Caitlin, this is awesome! Your words and tips will help so many people who are reluctantly joining the *club.* Your roadmap will be copied, printed and pinned many times. I’m sending you healing prayers and oceans of strength. Know that your are loved from all corners of the world. Peace. ~Mamaste
  • cazaflows commented on April 3, 2013 Reply
    Thank you so much for sharing these amazing, super practical tips. I feel ready to support whomever may need support. I think it is remarkable how giving you are during what would seem to be a difficult time. (Bows deeply) ~C
    • Caitlin Marcoux (@Nantucketyogini) commented on April 3, 2013 Reply
      as a very wise woman once told me ‘we are here in service, to amplify the love on this planet’. I’m drawing so much strength from sharing what cancer is teaching me – it’s a golden opportunity. thank you for reading :)
  • thesugarpuff commented on April 3, 2013 Reply
    i am moved by your advice though i (blessedly) have not had any close brush with cancer. your honesty and upbeat attitude, combine with realism and sensitivity are going to continue to inspire women. keep up the good fight <3
  • Susan Lefkowitz-Nichols commented on April 3, 2013 Reply
    Fabulous piece!! One thing I learned is to let people get involved (an extension of your #5 tip). I was always the “go to” gal when people needed support. Not to open to receiving. I learned quickly that my friends wanted (actually NEEDED to help). They felt as powerless as I did those first weeks…stepping up empowered them as well! Looking forward to following you!
    • Caitlin Marcoux (@Nantucketyogini) commented on April 3, 2013 Reply
      yes, yes, yes Susan. I too was the “go-to” and typically was the advocate, not the patient. this is teaching me so much about yielding to change and accepting help from others. it’s such an important and powerful lesson. thank you so much for reading!
  • dad commented on April 3, 2013 Reply
    what, no hash brownies yet? and they’re legal! right?
  • SR Atchley
    SR commented on April 3, 2013 Reply
    Love and light and blessings upon you! Thank you. Sincerely, The World. (And I’m with Dad!)
  • Andrea Balt
    Andrea Balt commented on April 3, 2013 Reply
    Thank you so much for sharing your journey, Caitlin. Helpful and inspiring to many. We’re right behind you. Much love & healing from all Les Rebelles.
  • Flying Yogini (@FlyingYogini) commented on April 3, 2013 Reply
    beautiful. brave. practical and smart. here to raise the mom flag in support cyber or in real life how ever you need it. wonderful.
    • Caitlin Marcoux (@Nantucketyogini) commented on April 4, 2013 Reply
      Thank you Flying Yogini. Your blind support has meant so much to me. I love that we’ve connected thru Twitter (and now FaceBook). I feel like I know you, and your little Tweets of Confidence and Courage have given me strength. I feel like you have been thru some pretty big stuff yourself. #momtomom
  • scorpioski commented on April 3, 2013 Reply
    Thank you for this, Caitlin Wing. Your Editor is correct, “inspire… educate… uplift…”, indeed. I am grateful to be able to read about, share, and participate in your life. I am heartened by some of the terms you use: fight, control, amazing hugs. I know that putting this together and putting it out here is helping you as much as those of us reading it. Just another tool in your utility belt. Glad there’s an app for that!
  • Dina commented on April 3, 2013 Reply
    …..and may i add….bring your favorite music on the headphones with you wherever you go……whatever flies you higher, or supports you when you are lower, or soothes the rattled brain, and calms the thoughts……..my love is with you, caitlin……..xoxoxo
    • Caitlin Marcoux (@Nantucketyogini) commented on April 4, 2013 Reply
      So true Dina! My iPhone is loaded with my favorite tunes…and as I type this, I am downloading a new documentary into my iPad to take with me to my infusion this morning. my undying gratitude to the creative genius over at Apple, and Steve Jobs, a cancer ninja himself.
  • Jules commented on April 3, 2013 Reply
    Pragmatic and eloquently spoken! Love this, and you!
  • Grant Sanders commented on April 3, 2013 Reply
    This is awesome. Big, fat, parade balloon animals of love floating in your direction, C.
  • Melissa Swim commented on April 4, 2013 Reply
    You have more knowledge in your first ten days than many women I know who are ten years into this journey. Amazing writing , Caitlin. You are going to help so many others with this incredible gift of the written word you have been given. I know when first diagnosed, this article would have been a god send to me. I learned the lessons on my own, and so many more, as I know you will. It is a pleasure and honor to lift you up in your journey. You are amazing. With love from a fellow warrior.
    • Caitlin Marcoux (@Nantucketyogini) commented on April 4, 2013 Reply
      Please share TIPS Melissa! I know you’re full of them… add numbers 11-15 in the comment space below. Let’s keep adding to our collective body of knowledge.
      • Melissa Swim commented on April 5, 2013 Reply
        Have to give those tips some thought!
        • Mamaste
          Mamaste commented on April 5, 2013 Reply
          Melissa Swim…write your own article with tips number 11 & onward. And then someone else will take the baton. When it’s done it will become THE handbook for those taking the journey. Imagine. Send it to: create@rebellesociety.com xoxo ~Mamaste
  • Georgia Raysman commented on April 4, 2013 Reply
    Caitlin– thank you for your courageous example and your determination to fight the good fight. And, if you ever desire to share your story on NantucketChronicle.com we would welcome that. Blessings.
  • Greg Hinson commented on April 4, 2013 Reply
    I’m bookmarking this. Sadly, I’ll need to share this with others. Thankfully, I have it to share. Stay strong.
  • Karen Massoni commented on October 2, 2013 Reply
    Caitlin, thank you! I can’t express how strongly I feel about the wonderful thing you have done by writing this!!! It’s simply the best I’ve ever read about dealing with the new adventure of dealing with cancer. As I said on my FB page when I shared it, I’m going to save it in the ether as well as printing it out, because it’s much too important to lose track of. I live on the Cape, in Marstons Mills. I’ll be sending you prayer, blessings, white light, healing and positive vibes daily to you! If you ever need a ride to MGH, etc, I may be available to help-I’m a PT, disabled because of a shoulder injury-but I drive, and go to Boston frequently for appts. Call anytime if I can help in any way- I’m in the Cape Cod phonebook. Be well! Karen Massoni
  • M commented on October 9, 2013 Reply
    I like this! Fighting cancer myself, though not the traditional route, so no hospital visits, chemo & the such…they don’t quite all apply. I would love to see an article geared towards those who don’t have it on how to help someone who does….Many don’t know I do..most who do just look at you like you just told them the boogy man is behind them..some shut you out at first…just crazy! I actually totally get why..hmmm, starting to blog again..maybe I should write the post.
  • Sunny commented on November 30, 2013 Reply
    I am wondering if you could share why, as one who has been so deeply involved in natural healing, you have chosen to go the route of chemotherapy… thank you so much…
    • H commented on February 27, 2014 Reply
      Oh gosh, Sunny. I appreciate the humbleness in the tone of your question, but when I come across this type of misunderstanding about cancer treatment it’s hard not to get frustrated by it. And also, I can obviously only speak for myself here, and would be curious to hear the perspective of other members of the “club” as well. I too had always been more in tuned with natural healing, etc… and then I was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer in my 20’s (like Caitlin, I am also currently technically cancer free, but am still in treatment). It helps that I have had a very good medical team, but this diagnosis somewhat changed my opinion about western healing. *Bottom line: cancer is a matter of life and death. (Especially, later-stage and aggressive cancers like mine and Caitlin’s). When you get that diagnosis, you will do ANYTHING to survive it. Even if that means literally putting toxins into my body, i.e. chemo, if it’s my best shot at survival, then that is what I chose to do. And yes, any good doctor will be open to discussing ways in which you can supplement such harsh treatments with more holistic and “natural” ones. Also, Caitlin, I have never read this blog/website before, but I am glad to had stumbled across what you have written here. Thank you – and be healthy and well.
  • Chris Collins commented on January 7, 2014 Reply
    this is really great advice.
  • jomo commented on February 15, 2015 Reply
    the very first thing anyone with newly discovered cancer should do…is research the latest science that demonstrates DOING NOTHING IS BETTER THAN TAKING CHEMO. SEE if it applies to you…then the very next thing to do…..is find a doctor that treats cancer with the knowledge that chemo will kill you faster then your cancer. then….do what ever you need to get you through the night when..NO ONE CARES ABOUT HOW YOU ARE FEELING.

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