Facing Cancer Together: Guest Blog from Dan Shapiro

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We are thrilled to provide a guest blog post from Dan Shapiro, a psychologist and a professor of medical humanities at the Penn State College of Medicine. He is the author of a cancer memoir titled, Mom’s Marijuana. His latest book is And In Health: A Guide for Couples Facing Cancer Together. Thank you Dan, for sharing your experiences and insight with The SAMFund.

And in HealthI was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease when I was twenty. For the next five years, I was in and out of treatment and had a few relapses and a bone marrow transplant. And I have to be honest. I was pretty self-focused on the goal of surviving during that period and only rarely did I think about how being ill was impacting the other people in my life. In fact, at times, I was tough on them. I remember ripping a bag of chips from my mother, “Damn, I can do that for myself!” I screamed at her. Or the time I peppered the oncologist with questions while my father quietly wept, sitting next to me. Or when I snapped at Terry, the woman who would become my wife, just because I wanted to prove I could navigate my IV pole around the television jutting from the wall without help.

“Alright cowboy,” She snickered.

Here’s the metaphor I use now: When I was sick, it felt like I was driving into a busy intersection too quickly. But I had my hand on the wheel and my foot on the brakes. I could anticipate the crash and navigate, a least a little. But then some years later my wife was diagnosed with a serious breast cancer and scheduled to have some of the same chemotherapy agents I’d imbibed myself. And suddenly I was the caregiver. And now, it felt like she was driving into traffic too fast, only doing it far away, her windows rolled up, her hands on the wheel and her face set in that same grim determination. And I was powerless to help.

The fact is, it’s not only happening to you. Cancer happens to all of us.

When my wife was safely through her intersections I started interviewing other couples. I’m a psychologist, and I also considered my own patients and their relationships. Then I spent some time studying what we know from the behavioral science studies that have been done with couples in which one person had cancer. And I started to write. Four years later, I’d finished a book I titled, “And In Health: A Couples Guide to Facing Cancer Together.” It’s actually for any caregivers and patients, not just for couples.

But you don’t have to read the book to hear and embrace one of the most important lessons it contains. And when you get that cancer happens to couples and families and groups, then you get that we have to be gentle with one another, because that intersection is hard on all of us.

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