Patient #1: Staying mentally strong

“It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; about how much you can take and keep moving forward.  That’s how winning is done!” – Robert Balboa, Sr.

It is funny how life works sometimes. During my first hospital stay – just about a year ago, next week – I swore when this was all said and done, I wanted to make a difference in the lives of others.  Call it a moment of clarity, or life smacking you in the face, or whatever. During my two weeks in Broward General, I faced the reality that my life had, up to that point, been fairly self-serving. Sure, there were plenty of moments I had sacrificed for the good or happiness of others, but the hard truth was that my contributions to this world, outside of family and social groups, was fairly insignificant.

This blog has given me a jump start on that goal. I got a text from someone who is going through the difficulties of a Stage IV melanoma battle, asking me how I do it; how do I deal with this dreaded disease in such a positive manner. It took me a while to reply – partially because I didn’t know exactly how to voice the feeling of rebounding from low points to pursue a lofty outcome that is a statistical outlier. I didn’t even have a good intro to this post; I had to rely on Rocky. It made me examine how I tick, why I see the good in every bad, and how I feel that is making the difference.  

My approach to cancer is fairly straightforward. It is simple, and difficult. The things required of a cancer fighter are uncomplicated in nature – stay in the best physical health possible, keep a positive outlook, and put up with the rigors of treatment as much as you can. Basically, see how much s*** you can take and not waver from believing you will beat cancer. Simple, yes.

Easy, no. It isn’t easy to remain positive when faced with a barrage of negativity. From diagnosis onward, every cancer patient fights an uphill battle against the odds and against doubt. Your mind wanders down all-too-real hypotheticals. Your body starts to betray you. Your emotions get wrung through doctors’ offices, hospital stays, long days doing research and longer nights pondering just what the hell to do next. It’s no wonder that cancer takes a toll on so many.

The best advice I got was also the simplest – stay strong. It is the advice I give anyone I come in contact with regarding cancer. The truth is tough to swallow, that most of us will end up losing this war within our bodies. Facing that truth, and still upholding a strong will and belief, is what makes a difference in my battle.

I get up every morning, look myself in the mirror, and say "Today, I am not letting cancer win.” Following through with that every day is demanding. Some days I clearly win – successful scans, family trip to Disney, or even simple things like Boat Day or Movie Night. Some days, the cancer wins, but even then - tomorrow is another day, and the battle begins anew. Most days are a toss-up, they can go either way. Those are the most difficult ones, where you can give in to anger, to hopelessness, to resentment. Or, you can choose happiness, resolve, and faith. 

I will beat this because I believe I can beat this, because I choose that second option daily. Maybe I'm not smart enough to know any better; if so, it's a blessing in disguise. I never once thought there wasn’t a way I could be cured. Realistically, statistically - I'm still a long shot to be writing a blog (or anything else) in four years. I can objectively discuss the dire prognosis, or the remote odds of long-term survival. Inside, though, I just don't believe they apply to me.  

Think about how many people go through life not doing things simply because they are told they can't do this or they shouldn't do that. The morning before my last infusion, I was scuba diving at 7 a.m. No one told me I couldn't do it, and the "ask forgiveness instead of permission" thing is actually beneficial some times.  Why can't I scuba dive before an infusion?  (In retrospect, getting shingles may be an answer I didn’t consider). I take a lot of this rah-rah stuff to heart. The difference between one person succeeding and another failing is, quite often, who believes in themselves more. How many people heal because they believe they will? More importantly, how many people don't recover because they never believed they could get better?

For those of you who are, or one day will, fight this battle, there is a lot more depth to it than just flicking on the Vince Lombardi switch and getting fired up to conquer cancer. It is a sustained effort, focused energy, constant learning, and quite a few standing-8 counts. It's not enough to just say the right things. Encouragement rings hollow when faith is missing. Prayers seem like a last-ditch effort to avoid the course, a literal Hail Mary. Confidence in survival can cede to resignation of pre-determined fate. You need to believe – in your choices, in the medicine, in the strength you never wanted to find out you had. 

As my friend Jim Morris sings, “No one ever said this would be easy, and it looks like no one was right.” That’s how I do it — every day. Keep moving forward, no matter how hard that day hits. Rock was right; this is how winning is done. I am winning my battle this way. Go believe you can win yours.

T.J. Sharpe shares his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma in the Patient #1 blog. Read more »