The second time statistics created a predicament was during my husband and my final IVF cycle. We knew our chances were slim. After all the medications, shots, blood draws, doctor appointments, ultrasounds and schedules, the nurse had shared we only had one very poor quality embryo from our cycle. My husband and I had spent a couple years trying to start our family. We had several failed IUI and IVF cycles until we were finally blessed with our daughter. We wanted to have another child but decided we would only do one IVF cycle and accept whatever happened. While I was getting prepped for the transfer, the doctor stopped in and shared, “I would say you have a 6-8% chance of having a viable pregnancy with this embryo.” He offered to refund a significant amount of money if we decided to not go through with the transfer. However, we both agreed we would proceed. I think I was the one that said, “6% is better than 0%.” Even though we had said, “this is our last IVF cycle” before, we both knew we meant it this time. I vividly hold the memory of my husband I, holding hands, walking away from the clinic in my mind. I remember we were not sure if we should be excited or cautiously prepared. In my sarcastic, not always appropriate humor, I said jokingly, “I was told I would only have a 5% chance of having thyroid cancer and look at what happened there.” I have always been rebellious. Tell me it’s not going to happen and I’ll show you! Relatively, there isn’t much difference between 5% and 6-8%, essentially the same odds. But I felt different. How could this be? My thoughts were different. I was optimistic and relaxed. A ‘knowing’ that I would be okay regardless of the results existed. Before I get too much further, I am happy to share that the 6-8% chance resulted in a happy, healthy and beautiful baby boy.
What happened in those 6 years in between my cancer diagnosis and my last fertility treatment? A lot! I wouldn’t be able to give justice to all the events, changes and people, who shaped my life in those following 6 years, but I will highlight a few things which I know helped.
- I learned that statistics do not predict the outcome or what happens next. Statistics do not control or dictate how I will respond. Essentially, those statistics meant nothing. Something will either happen or not happen. That’s it. The sense of control does not come from the statistics. It comes from knowing that I am in control of my response. I realized that no amount of analyzing, interpreting or researching those statistics affected the outcome. It was just a number provided by the doctors, with no story or predictive success. I am not knocking statistics. I understand their value. They show a snapshot of what has happened but not what WILL happen. When statistics are applied to human experiences, they do not take into consideration a human’s mind, heart, beliefs and soul.
Here is a hypothetical: A doctor delivers news to three different patients. They have the same illness and the same prognosis of having a 20% chance of living more than two more months.
- One decided to book an extravagant vacation with only his immediate family and friends. He spent time saying goodbye to his loved ones. Maybe he was able to go on that trip and maybe he wasn’t. But every morning he woke up looking forward to that trip.
- Second patient decided to do treatment and spent his final days attending doctor’s appointments and taking medication. He spent time with his family, talking about “when he gets better”. Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.
- Third patient decided to not tell anyone and ‘go on with life as usual’.
- Therapy was extremely helpful in the progress I made in those 6 years. I know. I am a therapist recommending therapy. I really believe in the benefits of therapy and have done my own work. I believe in identifying and challenging cognitive errors that no longer serve us. I believe, when we share our feelings in a safe and non-judgmental environment, we discover ways to relate to ourselves differently. As the writer to your own story, you get to decide how the chapter ends. How do you want to share your story? If you are reading this and thinking, that is nice but it is not so easy to choose to believe everything will be okay and then believe it. Nice idea but not so easy to put into practice. I would invite you to explore and identify your beliefs. How is the belief, “Life isn’t fair.” “Only bad things seem to happen to me” “It’s better to be safe than sorry” “I don’t want to get my hopes up” (insert yours) protecting you? If you didn’t hold that belief, what are you afraid might happen? Might there be another way to serve that underlying need or feeling? Explore with curiosity, openness, and compassion. When challenging and exploring my beliefs, I found new information I could integrate into my internal belief system, creating more adaptive and self-serving beliefs.
- After I did some really good work in therapy, I had an indescribable spiritual experience. I learned, once I changed my beliefs, I was able to have a deeper, more authentic relationship with myself, connecting my mind, body and spirit. This also led to more meaningful relationships with others. Once my beliefs changed, my relationship with my support system changed. I say relationship because I had support during my cancer diagnosis. However, my beliefs prevented me from trusting and being vulnerable with them.
- I learned self-compassion. As a human experience, we all suffer. It is a part of the requirement of being human. Even though someone isn’t struggling when I am, does not mean they haven’t or won’t experience pain. Did I want someone, who I knew, to have cancer? Of course not! I just didn’t want to feel alone. When we can look beyond our current circumstances, we can see that no one is immune to pain or suffering. This is not to say, we should minimize our pain because “others have it worse." We are to accept the fact that we all struggle. Accepting suffering as a human experience can challenge that belief, “I am alone.” “Bad things seem to only happen to me” “What did I do to deserve this.”
- I learned about mindfulness. The practice of staying present in the here and now. Being present creates space to make a choice in how we will respond, turning off our ‘automatic pilot’ response button. I also learned practicing mindfulness isn’t all about being calm and zen. It means bringing awareness to our present internal experience and noticing what is happening, without judgment.
During my second cancer experience, my doctor, who was approaching retirement had a different way of delivering news. He stayed away from statistics. He said, “You are young. This isn’t the last bad thing that will happen to you in your lifetime. How you respond to these circumstances will prepare you for the next”. These words were like a punch in the gut. Wait a minute, my first thought was, “Dude. That’s deep. Seriously? I am trying to get through this crisis one day at a time. I just wanted to know your qualifications and recommendations on treatment options. I wasn’t prepared for a whole life lesson from Deepak Chopra.” After I settled down, I saw the brilliance in his response. The reminder that it is not the circumstances we face that determine who we become. It’s how we respond to those circumstances that become the manuscript of our life and the legacy we leave. That meeting was definitely worth my copay.
I will leave you with a quote from one of my favorite authors, Brene Brown, “If you own your story, you get to write the ending”. Take back control by making a shift. Change the focus on controlling the outcome to controlling your response. You are going to have uncomfortable feelings and negative thoughts. This is true. This will happen. I am 100% guaranteeing it! We can’t control that we are mad but we have control in how we respond to that anger. That is where the power and freedom lies.
***If you want to read more about the mind-body connection, specifically as it pertains to illness, I highly recommend Dr. Bernie Siegel’s book. ‘Love, Medicine and Miracles”. The link is in my book resource page under Cancer Support. He also has helpful meditation CDs.***