Last night while driving with a friend who is also a cancer survivor we got on the topic of denial. It seems that when I had completed all of the requirements for the Leadership Institute for Nonprofit Executives I was about to fall apart physically and ended up making numerous doctors appointments within weeks of graduation. Right then, I was already in denial for my health just so I could finish what felt like a marathon so I could get a medal. And I did. I received Distinguished Honors when I graduated for an Exemplary Final Project and perfect attendance. I don’t even think being a cancer survivor is the reason I fall into perpetual denial. I feel that being a survivor exemplifies how far we had to push ourselves to beat cancer!
My first appointment was with an orthopedic specialist because I was fighting a chronic case of plantar fasciitis with my left foot and my right ankle would pop every time I would point my toe. The plantar fascii runs along the bottom of your foot with the point of insertion at the tip of your heel. When it’s inflamed, it feels as if someone is sticking sharp pins into your heel every time you put pressure on your foot. They took x-rays and finally when I told the doctor about my issues he suggested that I quit wearing the orthotics that were in my shoes because they were to hard and in effect aggravating the plantar fascii. But I’ve been wearing those orthotics since I was in drill team in High School and it felt odd trying to run without them. Yet even against what I thought was better judgement, I got used to life without my coveted orthotics and the plantar fasciitis went away. Plus, the popping in my right ankle let me believe that something was just not right with my musculoskeletal system and I knew it would only get worse. That was until the doctor kept repeatedly asking me about when it popped and how it felt until he finally said that as long as it pops without any pain that it would be fine.
But he didn’t understand that I never pop and this was just not right. Even so, he repeated himself and soon I left the office feeling like I had wasted everyone’s time including mine. Had I been in perpetual denial about my orthotics and ankle for so long?
I think so.
With heel cups in my running shoes, my feet felt great. And when my ankle pops I have to tell myself that nothing is wrong. This is all part of living and learning how to manage fear of recurrence even though it is all out of our control. I get so focused on helping others that I forget to help myself and that is not a great trait. Yet the first step at gleaning new skills is recognizing that there are some skills I need to release and this is one of them.
When the doctor told me that it would be just fine without my orthotics and with the popping, I could hardly hear him. I kept saying, What? Really? That can’t be! Huh? It just did not register in my brain that something I had used for so long was now not needed, as in the orthotics in my running shoes. Or that a popping sound did not mean the end of the world or my entire leg. In fact, he told me to stretch my calf more often and even gave me a brace to sleep in that would keep my foot flexed while I slept. I rolled my eyes and laughed to myself, but you know what? It worked. My friend reminded me that once a cancer survivor, always a cancer survivor but then anything that hurts or pops tends to become something we just may not be able to handle, because it could be cancer again. Yet as I continue to educate myself I feel more empowered with my life.
On July 8th, four years ago, I rang the bell marking the fact that I had completed chemotherapy and we all took pictures and celebrated the moment. I was thrilled that it was over and immediately had the port taken out of my chest. Yet our family pet was not so lucky this year when after a weekend of emergency services, the doctors discovered a
2 cm cancerous mass growing on his heart. He had been his rambunctious self just three days earlier when all of a sudden he could not walk or breath and we didn’t know why. He was only nine years old and such a great dog. He was man of the house and after doing everything possible to figure out why he was sick, we got the news and it was to late to treat him. His body was already shutting down and we were left wondering how it came up so suddenly when he was always so happy. We were in denial when we came home without our dog, even though we knew he wasn’t at the hospital either. Dogs have such short lives yet they leave an indelible mark on your heart with their spirit. Even the dog didn’t know he was sick and lived every single day to the fullest. I like the lessons he taught me.
Denial is one of many coping mechanisms we have to slowly understand and feel our emotions. It works to save us, even though I never want to waste time. Yet time is never really wasted because it’s moments like losing our beagle that remind us all of our own mortality. We are spiritual beings have a human experience. And sometimes perpetual denial can be a good thing, but only if you are a dog.