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Switching gears

Author: Diana Price

changing gearsSue Friedman was 33 years old and working as a veterinarian in south Florida when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996. The diagnosis was the result of a precautionary mammogram she underwent before trying to get pregnant with her second child. The journey that followed—which would ultimately include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, genetic testing, and a prophylactic oophorectomy and hysterectomy—transformed Sue’s life physically, emotionally, and professionally.

As she faced the many challenges related to her diagnosis—including treatment options, fertility, reconstruction choices, and genetic testing—she realized how few resources were available to women who, like her, were at a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer as a result of a genetic predisposition. When she completed her own treatment, Sue knew she wanted to help fill that gap—to offer women the resources she had been seeking herself.

In 1999 she founded Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE) as “a safe environment for high-risk people to communicate and get the support they need.” Though she initially continued her veterinary career, which she loved, Sue found her life increasingly directed toward her work with FORCE. She left her veterinary practice in 2003 and has been devoted full-time to the organization ever since.

“This has been the most all-encompassing thing in my life,” she says. “I never would have imagined when I went into vet medicine that a health issue would end up dictating where I lived and what I’d be doing for a living. I’ve gone from veterinarian to patient advocate to speaker to conference planner to author, which is very exciting. It has absolutely changed my life.”

Cancer as a catalyst for change

Like Sue, many cancer patients find that their experience with cancer sets them on a different path. Whether it’s a career change, an emotional shift, a spiritual awakening, or new intentions for their physical health, patients often have a desire to chart a new course.

Rabbi Eric Weiss, president and chief executive officer of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco, California, says that a cancer diagnosis can inspire a journey of self-discovery that leads people to reevaluate many aspects of their lives. “The self-reflective experience [inspired by a diagnosis] causes people to think about a whole variety of things in the context of their relationship to others in their life and in relationship to the ways in which they go about their daily life. That can be something as basic as their diet or the way they handle stress or even the way they earn a living.”

Often patients are prompted to evaluate their lives in this way by the inevitable consideration of their own mortality, Rabbi Weiss says. “Patients may feel that time is now limited, at least potentially limited, and I want to make use of what I can do for the time I potentially have.” In that context, he says, they may feel the need to make changes in family life, relationships, spirituality, and other major aspects of their lives.

For non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor Jeanette Greene, facing the thought of her own mortality and the impact of the disease on her family did prompt a new consideration of her faith. “I remember thinking, Wow! I could die tomorrow, and I have two kids,” she says of her reaction to her diagnosis, “and I realized that I wasn’t where I needed to be in my faith.”

Having recently reconnected with her church, Jeanette made the decision to be baptized shortly before her first round of treatment. The decision to embrace her faith, she says, not only helped her cope with treatment but brought her many blessings throughout her journey: she found the emotional strength she needed through her renewed faith and her church community; she was offered a job that fit her needs and provided more income for her family; and she has been happy to see her husband grow in his faith, as well. “How I’ve gotten through this,” she says, “is through God.”

Transition tools

It’s clear that a diagnosis can prompt patients to consider some big questions about their lives and, in some cases, to make changes. But it’s not always easy to consider and carry out such changes. In what Rabbi Weiss describes as the “foreign territory” of life after a diagnosis, patients can find the experience of coming to terms with these major issues daunting. For many patients, seeking support and guidance during this time can be invaluable.

“We all need help through these processes,” which, Rabbi Weiss says, could come from a professional therapist, a support group, a member of the clergy, or a good friend. And, he notes, it’s not just the person considering these major issues who needs support but the caregiver as well. In fact, caregivers can benefit from seeking counseling and support throughout their loved one’s illness.

Ultimately, each person diagnosed with cancer will find that the experience generates a unique response and set of questions, which may or may not result in a change of his or her life’s course. In the same way, there is no right way to approach these changes and no clear direction on which route to take. Instead, what is important to remember when considering these issues, Rabbi Weiss says, is that every journey is different. There are principles to consider, but there is no one answer.

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