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Monday's with Jean Campbell

It’s Not About the Hair!

By One Comment5 min read

This guest post is about Debra Jarvis, an oncology chaplain and breast cancer survivor. The post is in Debra’s own words, taken from the Introduction in her book, It’s Not About the Hair: And Other Certainties of Life and Cancer.

I am the general oncology outpatient chaplain at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA). I see patients who are receiving chemotherapy, getting radiation, having their blood drawn, or waiting to see their oncologists.

I was in my fourth year at the SCCA when I received the upsetting news that my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. However, I didn’t have much time to be disturbed about it because five days later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I couldn’t decide if her case or mine was the most disturbing, so I settled on being equally disturbed about both.

Still, like having your car break down when you work at an auto repair shop, I thought if you had to have cancer, it was pretty convenient to work at a place that treats it.

“But you’re the chaplain! You should be immune!” I heard this from a lot of outraged people, as if I had some special spiritual protection.

So what if I’m the chaplain? I’m a Christian, the faith that’s all about the crucifixion of the guy who is considered the Son of God! I mean if the Son of God can’t get a break, why should I? I’m only the chaplain.

So I chose to have my surgery and chemotherapy at the University of Washington, the medical center affiliated with SCCA. During my first appointment with my oncologist she made it clear she completely understood if I wanted to go elsewhere if I felt uncomfortable or for reasons of privacy.

“Why,” I asked, “would I not want to be treated at a place that is filled with people I know and love? And why would I not want to be treated at a place where I have witnessed the finest care given in my twenty years as a hospital chaplain? And above all, why would I not want to be treated at a place where I know the location of every single restroom?”

She got my point.

Besides knowing the staff and the location of the restrooms, I had another advantage. I had seen people deal with cancer a thousand different ways—some inspiring and some less so. I’ve listened to patients who tried to pretend cancer is a million yucks. It’s not. It’s not even a hundred.

And I’ve listened to people who are whiny and tragic. Even if your situation is tragic, it doesn’t feel good to whine—for very long. Forgive me if I sound harsh. I’m not talking about expressing your feelings, I’m talking about whining, and there is a difference.

Whining is basically about being stuck. You are stuck telling the same story in the same way in spite of everyone’s efforts to help you resolve it or re-frame it or find meaning in it.

Somewhere between the joking and whining, there is this precious place of absolute centeredness—peace in the eye of upheaval and chaos. It is an assertive kind of peace because it takes effort to stay grounded and centered while things swirl around you. It’s not as if you’re just sitting there blissed out, denying your pain or your fear. It means you feel your feelings, give them a voice, and then move on.

I have read a new patient’s chart and thought, “Holy-Jesus-God-and-all-the-saints! What a disaster!” But then I met this patient, and she was all upbeat and grateful for this and grateful that. She said, “Here’s a funny thing that happened on my way to brain surgery . . .”

I wanted to say, “Have you read your chart lately?” But I could tell she knew exactly what was going on and was being completely authentic. It was all in how she chose to be with her situation. She was her Best Real Self.

That’s how I wanted to be: my Best Real Self. For some people that means being more private about it, but for me, that meant being very open about my diagnosis. So I sent out e-mail updates on my treatment progress. Friends and family wanted information, and they also wanted to know how I was with what was going on. And my therapist friends wanted to know how I was with how I was.

Knowing that time is precious and e-mail can be overwhelming, I included just a few thoughts and feelings in each message. I wanted to write more about what surprised me, what helped me, and what disappointed me, but it didn’t feel right to send six page e-mails. It’s an e-mail, not an electronic book.

I learned much about cancer from being a patient, and probably the most astounding thing to discover was only a small part of the cancer experience is about medicine. Most of it is about feelings and faith, and losing and finding your identity, and discovering strength and flexibility you never knew you had.

It’s also about looking at life and staring death in the eye. It’s about realizing the most valuable things in life are not things at all, but relationships. It’s about laughing in the face of uncertainty and having the courage to ask for more chocolate and less broccoli.

And, if you haven’t figured it out by now, it’s about realizing cancer is the best excuse for getting out of practically anything—except chemotherapy.

And although many people asked me how I felt about it, what it was going to be like to lose it, and how I was going to deal with not having it . . . it’s not about the hair.

You can read more about Debra on her sites:

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