I paused at the door and took a deep breath before entering the hospital room. I was a patient on another floor with three teams of doctors working on my medical complications, and one doctor asked me to visit this young woman who was engulfed in fear and depression. It was day 3 after her surgery to remove ovarian tumors. Day 3 is when you realize you’ll actually survive this trauma – but your future is full of chemo and medical challenges. Introducing myself to Donna, I leaned on my IV pole and juggled the “luggage” attached to various tubes disappearing beneath multiple layers of hospital gowns. With terminal bed-head to complete the package, I was a dubious vision of hope and inspiration – if this was the figure of success, would she throw herself out the window? With my extensive experience, I’d already calculated the side-effects of such action, and could offer alternatives. Maybe I shouldn’t reveal my medical scorecard: 8 years of chemo for ovarian cancer, 12 different kinds of chemo to date, 16 surgeries during the last eight years, 23 years since my breast cancer, 24 visits to the operating table in my life.
She was thirty-something and married with two young boys. Right away she started to cry, asking the usual questions: “Why me? What did I do to deserve this? How could God let this happen? Who will raise my kids?” Softly, I interrupted her, “Donna, this kind of thinking is demoralizing, self-defeating and wastes valuable energy. You must learn to take control of your life; recognize what gives you strength and resolve, versus that which puts you in a downward spiral. For all I’ve been through, I have a full and happy life as an artist, author, and speaker; I have cancer, but I’m also living my fairy tale. I boil it down to five essential elements critical for handling a life crisis: Spirit, Discipline, Laughter, Purpose, and Focus – I call it The Fran Plan. Every minute of every day involves these elements; the lessons are the same for everyone, regardless of your personal situation. Let’s talk about spirit, which is faith in your God – he didn’t give you cancer; and faith in yourself – you didn’t give yourself cancer. But God did give you the strength and will to handle this crisis. You must also love and respect yourself; how can you be focused on saving your life if you don’t value yourself?”
She began to calm down and listened intently. “You can do this, Donna,” I continued, “but a cast of thousands can’t help you if you won’t help yourself. Surviving successfully is a big job; you must have the discipline to work for it. Apathy, lethargy, and depression are the killer trio. Depression can be as difficult to diagnose as cancer – and just as deadly, because you make bad decisions and choices. Depression takes away your life, and laughter gives it back to you. Laughter and exercise are your best friends – to heal your body, mind, and spirit. Laughter is oxygen (which is energy); you must seek it with determination and use it like medicine. Laughter is a choice; it conquers fear and anger – which are crippling. Laughter will heal your family, bring your friends closer, and help you face every day with unyielding zest for life.”
Donna had instructed her husband not to come to the hospital because she didn’t want him to see her in that condition. I thought it was a serious mistake to isolate herself, and to disconnect her husband. “He must be involved every step of the way, because you need each other and he must also start to heal.” Suddenly both of our IV pumps started those irritating beeps, and we burst out laughing with threats to dismantle/dissect/destroy them. Hurrying back to my nurse, I wished her blessings of courage and joy.
Two days later, my doctor reported that Donna wanted another dose of The Fran Plan before she was dismissed from the hospital. Her husband was there when I arrived, and was concerned about questions from their children. Children need stability and honesty; the most important thing is never lie to them – they’ll find out and valuable trust will be lost. Sometimes “I don’t know” is the best answer you have. Don’t let cancer be the hushed, silent monster in the closet; if you’re open and frank, it’s not so terrifying. You should go home and live with them, laugh with them, love them. Those are the memories that will last their lifetime. You can’t protect them from all of life’s sharp corners; they learn from your example how to handle life’s challenges, and respond to your mood and leadership. Put as much normalcy in your life as possible, spend time together, and remember to laugh a lot. When I had breast cancer my boys were given chores like vacuuming their rooms and doing their own laundry to help out. I’d love to report that heaven sang because they felt important to the family – involved in helping Mom get better; in truth, they accused me of brutality. Yep – I had to bribe them; but we made it fun.
I was about to leave when Donna remembered that we didn’t discuss the last two elements: Purpose and Focus. Everyone has something that puts joy and personal fulfillment in their life; a reason to get out of bed. For me it’s art – the ultimate mental distraction. Obviously Donna’s purpose is to raise her children; but maybe she also needs a diversion, a personal interest or project. The answer is different for each person. But we must seek it out and use it to ward off depression and look forward to each day with enthusiasm. I define focus as staying grounded, controlling the mental chaos. Look your cancer in the face and declare war; don’t get distracted by pain, complications, or question marks. She seemed heartened, but worried that she couldn’t remember it all. It was for people like Donna that I wrote everything down in a funny and informative book titled I’d Rather Do Chemo Than Clean Out the Garage: Choosing Laughter Over Tears. There are so many ways that we as patients can help ourselves; The Art of Life chapter is my hard-core how-to.
“Everybody talks about positive attitude – what the heck is that anyway? It’s not bells and whistles or phoney exuberance. It is very simply quiet resolve; a quiet, personal resolve which permeates every element of your life, and becomes your source of inner strength. I prefer to think of it as Survivor Mentality. Your lifestyle will be different, Donna, but the key word here is life. You will see your children grow, and you’ll see their ball games, so don’t give away your stadium seat. Just remember, you’re in charge; you can choose to go with sunshine, or you can stay in gloom – and the world will mirror your image. If you laugh – you’ll hear laughter. So don’t give up your fairy tale; your wings have been singed – but you can still fly!”
Artist Fran Di Giacomo is author of
I'd Rather Do Chemo Than Clean Out the Garage: Choosing Laughter Over Tears.