Math, English, and Cancer

During the summer of COVID-19, I commented on a riddle posted by a friend on Facebook. I answered correctly and reposted it as part of the deal. Things got crazy after that with the many answers I received. Psychology papers could be written on behaviors from analyzing the way people responded. I found these reactions more fascinating than the answers people gave.

Here’s the what I posted:

Why did I participate? I rarely partake in social media challenges and group activities that involve my committing to share with others. I try to stick with content that involves me directly or issues that are important to me. So, why this one? It was fun. I read the problem carefully and figured out the tricky parts and was pretty sure my answer was right. I like being right as much as the next person. It was also something to do that I hadn’t done before. I have found myself bored at times during the pandemic. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I am not here to fault those who were incorrect. Notice I’m not sharing the answer as it’s not important. I am not going to respond to guesses left as replies. You can check Facebook if you need to know the answer. My focus is on human nature. I am not a psychologist. My only qualifications in offering my opinions are as someone who has observed a lot of people informally as we all have.

These opinions are mine:

Q: Why did some comment once, accept they were incorrect, and move on?

A: They thought about it and then forgot about it. They just weren’t into it. They had other interests.

Q: Why did some answer multiple times?

A: They were into it and couldn’t let it go until they knew the answer or died trying. Both resilience and insanity cover these folks. Naturally, anyone who both reads my blog and answered several times has categorized their behavior as determined and resilient.

Q: Why did some comment privately and not post their answer to be seen by others?

A: Privacy is a treasured commodity these days. Some people are more private and don’t like posting publicly.

Q: Why did some who were correct write their answer in the form of a question whereas so many who were wrong committed to their answer decisively?

A: Perhaps these folks were humble and modest. Perhaps they saw the long list of incorrect answers and felt a wave of insecurity. What struck me as curious was not one of the wrong answers had a question mark after it. It was only a few of the correct ones that answered using a question mark.

Q: Why did some bring in other people who critiqued the language of the question when their initial answer was incorrect?

A: Tone is hard to detect sometimes in writing, especially in texts or quickly written comments. I couldn’t tell for sure if one person was insulted or not that her response and reasoning were deemed incorrect. Her fellow supporter backed her up and I thought they were planning to take it to whatever higher court they could find. I discovered she was even having conversations about it on her own timeline. I hope this means that she is passionate about puzzles. She would have made a good lawyer. Maybe a detective.

My opinion is some people made the question far too hard and introduced variables that didn’t exist. There were no lions hunting that day. Everything happened in linear time and in the same general setting. But hey, it is 2020, and I suppose a parallel universe exists for riddles. One friend I taught with asked me when I was going to share the right answer. I wasn’t planning on it per how I interpreted the directions. Only those who got the right answer would know so they could have the honor of posting. I decided to go ahead and post it simply because I felt bad repeatedly telling a couple people they were wrong. A bolt of lightning wasn’t going to strike me for going against the rules. It wasn’t a big deal. One childhood friend commented afterward that there had been family debates and involvement from neighbors. I guess that means I’m not the only one who has experienced some periods of boredom with life as we know it these days.

Again, I find it all fascinating. Rarely have I posted anything with as much interest and interaction. Posts about cancer haven’t received the same attention and level of response. Honestly, that frustrates me because this riddle doesn’t matter one bit. Cancer sure matters but too many keep scrolling past those posts because they aren’t “fun” posts.

Math is concrete. Even if there are equations with imaginary numbers and unknowns, answers are still derived. I love math. I no longer have the quadratic formula memorized, but it was used regularly in younger days. As a teacher, I loved teaching that there were multiple ways to arrive at the same answer. We learn to do a long math problem methodically and break it down into parts. We go back and find our mistake if something doesn’t add up.

English and words can be up for more interpretation. There can be ambiguity. Some words have subtle differences. As readers, some of us are more apt to read something quickly and miss needed information. The thing is we often don’t know we missed something and we don’t go back and reread. I miss information. I missed information in a novel my book club read that was provided in the first chapter. Hence, I was sure this big event was going to happen in every chapter that the author let readers know was going to happen toward the end of the book. I didn’t catch it.

So, I wonder . . .  is cancer more like math or English?

There are some absolutes like with math. Math is used in formulating treatment drugs and prescribing the needed amount. Tumors are measured in terms of millimeters and centimeters. Statistics are applied to the probability of very early stage cancers not returning after treatment. Drugs for metastatic cancers come with an average number of months without disease progression. Studies and trials contain graphs upon graphs of data. There is math involved with my oncologists, nurses, and the pharmacists that I know nothing about. There are a lot of numbers in cancer. Mathematical oncology applies computational models to help understand cancer development, growth, and reaction to treatment. I do not pretend to understand but seriously question if it may be used to prevent a patient from trying a treatment because the math doesn’t support it. It would be the worse case scenario of someone being reduced to a number and not a person with other important factors influencing a treatment decision.

Cancer can also be like the English language (or any language). Anyone who has had cancer or lives with cancer has a unique story to tell. My story is different from yours. There may be similarities, but we’re each our own storyteller using our own lexicons to share our stories. Our myriad stories convey hope, sadness, love, fear, joy, and anger. We speak and write of the factual details of cancer. Whether spoken or written, our words express anxieties that come with scans and office visits. Stories are emotional. Life is quite a story.

A cancer story isn’t understood by everyone. I understand not everyone understands what the word metastatic means. Reporters should if they are covering a story concerning it. They need to know it can’t be cured. Nurses need to know. There are different interpretations on what chronic means when referring to cancer. Just to be clear, Stage IV cancer isn’t chronic. Chronic means you have a manageable disease where you can still reach a normal life expectancy. We aren’t there yet. I want it to be chronic as much as anyone. Is it correct to refer to someone who is metastatic as a survivor, thriver, lifer, or another term? It gets complicated because individuals prefer what they prefer. Words can push buttons. Words that push mine are journey, cancerversary, and words describing cancer as a battle. For example, people don’t lose their battle. Saying that implies they are losers because they died. Utterly wrong. They died and it’s awful.

Then there’s the human nature element. Some of us may be more vocal whereas others want to comment privately. Some got it figured out on the first try and some kept trying over and over and over again. There are those who will advocate assertively until the right person shares their interpretation of data. Some of us will keep trying. If one solution doesn’t work, we will keep hammering away at it. We all have different ways of approaching a cancer experience just as there were different ways to approach a number story. We are all different. We are alike in wanting an answer.

Unfortunately, cancer is still a riddle. One that needs a definite answer.

Trust Suckers and Trust Blowers

A person can be either a Trust Sucker or a Trust Blower.

A Trust Sucker functions exactly how you would expect. Trust is sucked right out of you over time. Maybe it’s through belittling, embarrassment, manipulation, non-shared values as to what is public vs. private information, or repeated poor judgment. It feels like air is being pumped out of your lungs and you are left gasping for breath. The sucker sucks because of what he or she needs, not because of what you are doing or not doing. My theory is trust suckers feel very alone and are unhappy with the success, independence, closeness, or whatever it is that someone else has that they do not.

Trust Blowers are the polar opposites of the suckers. Just as you feel emotionally spent after being with a sucker but may not realize exactly why, you feel differently after being in the company of a blower. Blowers send supportive, positive, and uplifting energy your way. Inhaling is easy. They truly want what is best for you. There is an overwhelming feeling of safety with blowers. They are easy to trust because you know a confidence will stay confidential.

I need to dwell with the blowers as someone living with metastatic breast cancer. It’s about not spending essential energy on people or situations that don’t serve my best health. It’s about taking care of myself and not trying to fix someone else. It’s about feeling loved and trusting myself. I don’t have the energy to waste on someone I can’t trust.

I am extremely cautious about whom I trust in my personal life. As I age, I’ve gotten better at reading people and being able to discern whether to trust a person or not. In general, I use the following as guidelines to help make decisions:

  1. Does the person share private information about others when it isn’t their place to share? Someone who talks a lot about others is likely blabbing about me.
  2. Does the person remember what I’ve shared or take an interest in my life? Or are this person’s actions usually self-serving? Why does it matter? Self-serving people will not care when they break a trust because they lack compassion and empathy. They will not think they did anything wrong and that you are the one making too big of deal of things.
  3. Is the person a giver or a taker? Givers have others’ interests at heart. Takers take and move on to the next opportunity.

Cancer has messed with my ability to trust. Before I was diagnosed, I trusted I would remain healthy and be able to work until a normal retirement age. I trusted annual mammograms and results from ultrasounds. When I went on leave, I trusted that the long-term disability company that my school district contracted with was looking out for my best interest. I now feel the goal of this company was to get me on social security disability income so they wouldn’t have to pay as much. I’ve trusted scan results and later received information that contradicted those facts. Facts aren’t up to interpretation.

There are days where I don’t even trust myself.

I’ve struggled trusting medical information. Sometimes I want to scream at the medical world just as I often did with education. There have been times where I’ve felt like a problem or a difficult patient, rather than a fellow human being. I only have minimum access to information posted regarding test results and I feel like information is being hidden from me when I ask for more. It’s my body and I have right to know. I didn’t lie in a scanner for two hours because it was fun. I do better with more information but it is a balance as too much overwhelms me. Then there have been times where I have felt I was not liked. It’s hard to entrust your care to someone when you feel that someone doesn’t care.

One recent instant surrounds a recent cancer medication I took. I had been told it was important to take it consistently in the morning at around the same time for best results. This is true for most medication. However, this apparently didn’t hold true on treatment days because it was more important to make sure labs were all good. It would be okay to take said drug in the afternoon on those days. I had to keep a patient diary to provide data for a study I was involved with on when I took it, what dose, and its side effects. I took the diary seriously. Months later I was told that no one cared when I took the med by the nurse who collected the data. Even while I stared at this person in disbelief, I told myself I would take it in the mornings even on treatment days if no one cared.

I cared.

I still have diaries that haven’t been collected because I am not on that drug any longer and I no longer have contact with this nurse. How important could this data be? What was entered in its place? Was anything entered? I also still have a one to two month supply of this drug that I was supposed to return when I moved off the study. I haven’t been asked to do so since this nurse hasn’t come knocking for it.

Guess who doesn’t care now?

I’m not going out of my way to return any of it. Chalk it up to medical protocols and schedules in the life of COVID. There are more important things our health professionals need to deal with other than my patient diary and unused pills. Yet, I can’t help but question developments in my patient experience when scenarios like this unfold over time. Details deemed important one day were discarded the next. The inconsistency still surprises me.

Trust matters in a patient doctor relationship. I try hard to trust my oncologist, other doctors, and nurses. I do most of the time. I am not the same patient I was at the start of my metastatic cancer diagnosis. I will speak up. I will ask questions. I will disagree. I will persist and ask again if a question goes unanswered. This may not be a matter of distrust as much as needing information so I understand.

I am part of the team.

I expect to walk together.

I won’t follow blindly.

Trust is built over time and is a strong foundation for solid relationships. I will always look for the blowers rather than the suckers in my life whether it’s personally or medically. Whenever there is uncertainty, and there is plenty of uncertainty, I want people I trust with me so we can walk together.

Writing and Health

Words are powerful. They entertain, inform, and persuade. Whether written or spoken, words communicate. Something.

Writing is a way to self-reflect, express my beliefs, and share my voice with others. Tara Parker-Pope wrote an article in The New York Times titled Writing Your Way to Happiness. One path to happiness is through writing a personal story.

The goal is to create an “optimistic cycle that reinforces itself.” She explains that although our inner voice is choosing the words as we write, we can go back and edit our story. For example, I may choose to write a story about a session with my trainer, or planting morning glory seeds, or being kept awake by a thunderstorm. Rewriting it can bring about behavioral changes, improve happiness, and lead to better health.

Bringing about behavioral changes, improving happiness, and working toward better health are all important to me as someone trying to live well with cancer. I’ve written quite a bit about the progress I’ve made with my trainer. Through the rewriting process, I discovered how negative self-talk hinders me in my training sessions and then I made some changes. Maybe I’ll write a story about morning glories and understand why they make me so happy. Writing about sleepless nights during bad weather may motivate me to sleep in my basement where I can’t hear anything which in turn makes me feel a lot better the next day.

Stories lead us to better understand ourselves.

For anyone interested in journaling specifically about health, consider the following prompts:

  • What changes do I want to make in my behavior? Why do I want these changes? What is it I am hoping to gain? What is my plan? How can I take the first step?
  • What things make me happy from the inside out?
  • What small goals do I have that can lead to better health?

Or write a story about morning glories or something you think is entirely irrelevant to your health. After it’s written, you can look for possible connections that you didn’t see at first.

Timothy Wilson has researched writing as a way to change core narratives successfully and calls the process “story-editing.” His background is in social psychology and focuses on self-knowledge and behavior. I recommend one of his books, Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By, for further reading if interested. He sees writing as a pathway to bring about change. A writer writes for about twenty minutes a night for three to four nights, and each night goes back to edit the narrative. The outcome is that a more honest narrative is written through reflection on consecutive nights.

It’s an enlightening process.

Try it out: Think of a recent situation where you felt some anger.

Anger is a wonderful feeling to use for this exercise because you have automatic conflict.

On the first night, just write a very brief account to get the bare bones of the event written. It’s nothing fancy. Focus on your feelings another night and how to convey those through descriptions or specific actions. Add dialogue another night. Or just see where the writing takes you each night. You really don’t need a plan if you don’t want one. Just write.

Sometimes I wind up with an entirely different piece of writing than when I started.

I see writing your way to happiness as much more of a “revisioning” of a core narrative than editing, especially where endings are concerned. Revising involves bigger changes. Some parts stay, some go. Ideas are expanded. You try things out and see if they work. In Wilson’s book, one of his exercises is called “The Best Possible Selves.” He asks a writer to imagine his or her life twenty years from now and write about how everything has gone as well as it possibly could. Details about how the events of things happened are to be included, as well as meaning, hope, and purpose. Again, writing for twenty minutes a night for three to four nights is part of the directions. It gives your subconscious time to ruminate and work through whatever needs more thought so you can make more progress the following night. I think this is the same reason you are asked to write in the evening.

The part about including details about how future events happened is important. Being specific helps you form a picture in your mind of what you want. It makes a picture with words. Adding meaning, hope, and purpose also makes your vision super clear. Clarity in meaning and purpose makes what you want more probable.

I can tell you in my version I am completely healthy, retired, and enjoying every day doing the things I love. Writing sets a powerful intention more than thoughts or spoken words. It involves being really clear on what you want and organizing your words in the best possible way to express your specific intentions. I found that reading what I wrote out loud to someone after I completed the exercise also very revealing because my soul really responded to the core beliefs that I hold the dearest about my future as I put it all out there to the universe. Writing your way to happiness is one positive affirmation after another.

Writing something down tells your brain that your ideas, thoughts, and goals are important.

Writing engages us with our thoughts and helps us process emotions. It makes those thoughts concrete. It prepares those thoughts for becoming actions. Writing really serves as a blueprint or map for all that unchartered emotional and mental territory. Regular journal writing about feelings or uncomfortable events can help lower anxiety and help a person sleep better.

In the world of living well with cancer, I have both read and written. I am still learning how to write what I know and believe about cancer.

This is how I break down words about cancer:

  • Medical journals/scientific articles on cancer findings/advancements. I’ve avoided reading many of these articles and journals as they aren’t written for patients. Once it was suggested I read one per month, but I found them confusing. Or upsetting. Or not applicable.
  • Test results also can be confusing (or upsetting, or have unclear applications), however, these are much more important to understand because they affect the patient intimately.
  • A personal health journal to document the factual side of a cancer diagnosis. Surgeries, treatments, radiation, medications, side effects, tests, appointments, and schedules fall into this category.
  • Diaries/journal writing from survivors, thrivers, lifers, however a person best identifies. There are narratives filled with tips. Some write about living with cancer. Some write about beating cancer. Some write about dying from cancer.
  • Fictional stories where characters have cancer. They read differently than biographical accounts but contain many of the same sentiments of life and/or death. Some hit the mark – others do not.
  • Advocacy writing that argues for better research and treatments for later stage cancer patients. In my opinion, the world needs more of this kind of writing. People focus on the wrong drivers of “awareness” or accuse women and men of being “negative” if they write about the hard, scary, and ugly parts of cancer. Change will come through advocacy. Current widespread attitudes need to be challenged.
  • Celebrities sharing their “I never let cancer get the best of me” stories. How courageous . . . and . . . inspiring? I think it’s just ducky if they never experienced one moment of fear, doubt, or anger. If you can’t tell, I don’t believe them. I would be more impressed if they used their platform in the public eye (that is much more far-reaching than mine) to put a mark on metastatic breast cancer that can’t be ignored or dismissed. It makes me sad. I feel like they don’t understand. Maybe they can wear pink and that will make it all better.
  • Private writing reflecting on some of the questions above or your own.
  • A few write blogs. 😉

Am I missing any?

Writing forces a person to process a pesky thought that has been floating about unrecognized or undefined. Once on paper (or the computer), it lets you see what you were thinking or feeling. If it isn’t quite right, you revise until your inner voice has spoken.

I end this post how I began it: Words are powerful. They entertain, inform, and persuade. Whether written or spoken, words communicate. Something.