Very little in life hits as hard as a cancer diagnosis. You are stunned by the sting of that pain. It is a heavy load dropped on you like none other. Instantly, after you hear those words announcing you have cancer, your whole world begins to crumble under you. Try as hard as you can to be a “big boy” or “big girl,” you’re still going to cry, and you’re still going to be afraid. The shock of hearing a cancer diagnosis ripples through your body for days. That’s normal. Our bodies are wired to see danger, to be afraid of it, and to quickly decide if we will fight or give flight. Sadly, with cancer, we have one option: fight it.

So that’s the first “shock” of a cancer diagnosis – hearing that you have cancer and then thinking what that might mean to you, your family, and your friends. As I said, it is a shock that ripples through your body for several days. When I was told I had cancer, I spent the next few days crying more than I’ve ever cried in my life.

Part of that initial shock is all the time you’ll spend questioning yourself about past life decisions, actions, or lifestyles, trying to figure out why you “got” cancer. You will try to put your finger on the one thing you did that brought you to this point in life. Cigarettes? Alcohol? Wrong food? Cell phone by the ear? Microwave oven? Family history? What!? After you’ve exhausted yourself mentally with those finger-pointing exercises, you’ll start asking the most common question asked by cancer patients and their family: Why?! In most cases there is no specific why, only a “now what.” Ah, the ripples of that first shockwave.

This all happens in the “first” shockwave of the cancer bomb being dropped on you. First shockwave – you mean there’s more? Yeah, there are more, and the next one happens when you walk into a place you never really knew existed. I remember the first time I walked into the waiting room labeled “Medical Oncology.” As the big double doors swung open, several shockwaves hit me right away. First, the waiting room was not empty. Just about every seat was being warmed by a person who had the same look of fear I had on my face.

Second, I suddenly realized that sitting in the room were people of all ages, races, sizes, and shapes. There was a very old man in a wheelchair having his hand stroked by his equally aged wife. There was the young woman who had two toddlers with her, and I struggled with the painful thought of who was the patient and who were the “by-standers.” There was a young man in his twenties reading a sports magazine trying not to look scared. There was a businessman working on his laptop and checking his cell phone looking irritated he had to be there when he had better things to do. It was obvious no one chose to be there.

Finally, and this was a shock that happened every time I went to any cancer center: The rooms are never empty. The waiting rooms in the lab were never empty; the infusion rooms were never empty; and the doctor’s exam rooms were never empty. There were always more than enough people to fill each room and fill each waiting chair. That becomes a sad reality every time you go for labs, go for a check-up, or go for treatment. The rooms are never empty. In those rooms, you’ll see that cancer can be a great equalizer. Cancer doesn’t care about your height, your weight, your race, your gender, your education level, your income level, your position, or your address. None of that means anything in those rooms. Everyone is there for the same reason, and they all have the same look of trepidation in their eyes.

In those waiting rooms, you can tell the “old-timers” from the newly diagnosed. You can tell those who are well down a treatment path from those who are just starting. And if you listen carefully in those waiting rooms, you can sometimes hear words of encouragement being exchanged between patients and caregivers.

In those rooms, I always received words of care and compassion from the staff members who checked me in, treated me, or checked me over. In those rooms I eventually learned that the clerical people, the technicians, the nurses, and the doctors do more than just care for you – they truly care about you. In time I learned they were my “shock absorbers,” and that always made the visits much easier.

Share Your Thoughts

Is there something else you found particular shocking in dealing with your cancer diagnosis? Who were your "shock-absorbers?" Share your comments below.

About the Author

Paul J. Lawonn has more than 37 years of industrial safety and leadership experience and has provided consulting to more than 100 companies. Prior to his cancer diagnosis in 2005, Paul led the safety function at Harley Davidson’s Milwaukee power train operations manufacturing plant. His last position with Harley was corporate safety manager for compliance and employee training. He was diagnosed in 2005 with mantle-cell lymphoma but waged a successful nine- year battle and is now cancer-?free. Paul’s priority now is on inspirational and motivational speaking, writing, and coaching. He is particularly fervent about donating his time to charities that finance and fuel cancer research and organizations that provide assistance to cancer patients and their families. He’s written a guide to fighting cancer that he calls “Seven Steps to Persistent Perseverance.” 

Cecelia prentice

Oh Paul, this has been my experience as well! Well said. It is quite a journey ..... this experience brought me, too, into another world. And it is an awesome world devoted to the caring of and dedication to the patients. Let's always look at what we do have rather than what we do not have! Cheers!!!