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Gerald Young, Ph.D.
Gerald Young Ph.D.

“It’s Cancer!” I Was Told

Could I rejoin joy?

I remember perfectly when the hematologist told me "you have cancer".My first response was to ask, "How long do I have?" He answered that most likely I won't need chemotherapy for a few years because it is a slow growth one. After the shock, I continued with my life as best I could. I continued to work at the university and at clinical office as a psychologist and I continued to publish, which is my pride and joy. However, in my moments of fatigue, the fear would rise up in me. Turns out, it took only 8 months for the hemoglobin level to fall almost to the level that indicates the need for chemotherapy. It fell 12 points in 2 months to 102, and I only had a 2 point-margin for the next time. My children were in their 20s and 30s, and I had grandchildren, I thought, and my wife was a university professor, as well, so I worried less about them and more about completing my life tasks.

In particular, I had a child and lifespan development book that I had wanted to write from scratch for a professional audience and a psychology self-help book series to complete for the public, as well as making sure that the society and academic journal that I had just founded were launched effectively. I was two hemoglobin points away from strong chemotherapy, and I had no guarantee that "chemo fog" would allow me to think clearly enough to finish my life tasks.

I decided to complete my projects no matter what. My condition is non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and it was too early to tell which kind. There are 29 different kinds of NH lymphoma, and some are worse than others. I was told that when my hemoglobin level reached 100, I would get a bone marrow biopsy. It would help determine the exact type of NH lymphoma that I had and then the right chemotherapy course could be plotted. I learned that 18% of people pass away from NH lymphoma in the first year, and my levels were going down quickly, but nothing would stop me, I thought. I was used to working daily at the university and the clinical office for months on end, and I said to myself to just keep going. I also knew that one's attitude is crucial in keeping on course in cases of serious diseases and injuries, and I determined to be positive. It proved harder to stay positive in moments of fatigue, but I persisted.

Not only did I owe it myself and to my life projects to keep going despite the diagnosis of cancer, as well as to those who would benefit from their completion, but also I owed it to my patients. I had always told them that they had a choice to be more positive and to work through their stresses, despite their pains, injuries, or illnesses. In addition, I taught them cognitive and behavioral techniques, we practiced them, and they used them in their daily lives. I emphasized to them that you always have at least some control of your life no matter what your circumstances, and it came natural for me to adopt the same approach. Moreover, this was the basic theme of my self-help book series and even of this blog for Psychology Today - you have a choice to rejoin joy and to reclaim happiness even after the worst stresses and tragedies. Moreover, you are active agents in your psychological growth - you are not just reflections of your biology and your environment but also reflections of what you decide for yourself.

Cancer became a word for me that meant, "I can, sir!" I am not suggesting that you have the same work drive as me, but any drive will help in circumstances like mine. Passions of any sort can help deflect worry and depression, feeling helpless and hopeless, and wanting to stop. Good activities keep the mind relaxed and focused and stop it from dwelling on negatives. Be a warrior against stress instead of a worrier and its ally. Also, psychological techniques and therapy can be powerful adjuncts in your quests to improve yourself and the life of others. Psychology informs us of the best ways of living. That principle has animated all my writings and clinical practice, and it came to characterize my own dealings with my diagnosis.

The world might be three-dimensional, with time considered the fourth dimension. However, your universe contains a fifth dimension, and it consists of how far you look beyond the horizon both at work, and at home, and how hard you work in realistic ways toward getting there.

Well, I just completed my projects; the book is written and the self-help book series completed. The society and journal are on firmer grounds, as well [; we are still seeking members and donations to this non-profit, :)]. I use material from the book in my child development university course and material from the journal in my rehabilitation course; also, I use these ideas in my clinical practice. So the way things have developed form a nice unity, I thought. I had held off the disease long enough despite the precipitous drop in my hemoglobin level in its first year. Perhaps it was not mind over matter, but surely the attitude of my mind was part of the solution.

Disunity began when my hemoglobin finally fell below 100 a few months ago, just after I had finished the book; I was called in for the biopsy. A few weeks ago I got the results -- the news was terrible. I was told that I had Waldenstrom's -- a rare, uncurable cancer that is nasty. Unity crept back in the picture a few days ago when a second opinion indicated it could be a milder form of NH lymphoma. My hematologist respects the opinion of the first doctor, and I am on a month-to-month watch now, in case. My hemoglobin moved back to the 100 level in the last check, and of course, I hope that it stays there forever.

As I entered this year, the one for which the doctor had predicted I would need chemotherapy, I have become more reflective and I have been expressing my thoughts in these blogs. For example, I thought of what I should tell students, in particular, and therefore wrote my blog entries on why I love science and why we are all students of the world. My next blood test is in a few days, and I wondered what I can tell you, in perhaps this last blog, depending on the test results [although I have about 10 other blog entries in the hopper, including another reflective one on "WikiWaysofLiving."]

In moments like these, of course, spiritual matters become important. I found solace in the support of family members, in particular, and that was enough for me. Despite the ups and downs of life, my path has been a pleasant one to date, I thought, and I was thankful.

I hope this story contributes to your spirituality and having a positive, hopeful attitude. We all have a sense of spirituality and of goodness that binds us to ourselves and to each other. If you are in need of exploring further how to develop a positive outlook, you might want to consult my blog entries and my other writings, such as self-help book series. Rejoining joy is your birthright. Its journey never ends.

About the Author
Gerald Young, Ph.D.

Gerald Young, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at York University.

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