Crossing the Rubicon of cancer

Image by PMRMaeyaert licensed with CC BY-SA 4.0.
Image by PMRMaeyaert licensed with CC BY-SA 4.0.

In 49 BCE, then regional governor Julius Caesar was ordered to resign his command, disband his army, and return to Rome. He was bound by law to avoid crossing the Rubicon, a small river that served as a boundary during the Roman Republic.

Caesar chose to defy the law, leading his legion across the river in a treasonous act that was punishable by death.

His act of defiance precipitated the civil war that led to his rule over the Roman Empire and today, “crossing the Rubicon" is a figure of speech that describes a point of no return or communicates a bold course of action.

Cancer as a point of no return

Getting a cancer diagnosis—especially a stage 4 diagnosis—is definitely a point of no return. Once you know, you must act. “Ignorance is bliss” is a common belief that probably explains why some people ignore symptoms and signs that something could be wrong in their body. Unfortunately, if those symptoms go untreated and fail to go away on their own, things inevitably get worse. Ignorance may be bliss for a short while, but in the long run, it’s a very risky choice.

Cancer is like a river, flowing freely and sometimes escaping its banks. It has the power to sweep us way, and if crossing safely to the other side is not an option, we feel like we’re stuck treading water, which requires exhausting effort. Crossing the cancer Rubicon requires bold decisions and actions to figure out what to do. It truly does require boldness and courage because so many challenges come into play—finances, relationships, work, undergoing difficult medical treatments, unwanted side effects.

I’ve been in this river of cancer for many years. Sometimes I believed I had crossed over to the other side and left it behind me. Unfortunately, its current pulled me back in. Now I am floating along in a life raft of modern medicine and good health insurance that keeps me safe and dry. I am hopeful, yet also mindful, that this life raft could spring a leak at any time, if I’m not careful.

Mission of advanced cancer communication and activism

I have lived with cancer on and off since my initial diagnosis in 2000. I have been living with stage 4 cancer since 2016. I never wanted cancer to define me, but this last pandemic year of 2020 turned that around. I’ve decided to make it my mission to create a path that combines my cancer experience with my marketing experience and communication skills:

  • I am passionate about innovations in the detection, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without them, I would be dead.
  • That said, I am equally passionate about ways to keep people off the cancer treadmill by singing the praises of a healthy lifestyle. Cancer happens in some perfect storm of circumstances, so it’s not wholly preventable and should never cause us to be shamed or ostracized. But it’s clear that some activities—like smoking and sunbathing—are linked to cancer, and other activities—like exercise—reduce cancer risks and negative outcomes.
  • Finally, I feel we must continue to improve access to healthcare, especially in the United States. We have put men on the moon and computers in the palms of our hands; surely, we can figure out better healthcare options.

I want to advocate for other women and men living with metastatic breast cancer (mbc), which happens to be my tribe, but also any stage 4 cancers. Many of us with stage 4 breast cancer are fortunate in that we have treatment options and many resources for support and information. It’s remarkable really! People with other forms of stage 4 cancer may not be so lucky. Their cancer may be more difficult to treat, more unique, less likely to have as many resources and networks available to those with breast cancer.

I want my advocacy also to extend to the world of work, because that’s one of the last bastions of resistance to bringing cancer out of the shadows. There’s an old joke about nobody lying on their deathbed wishing they had spent more time at work. While it’s true that a life well-lived includes much more than work, what constitutes a life well-lived for some doesn’t apply to all. It depends on whether you view work as a means to an end or something that is a gratifying and vital aspect of your life.

Unfortunately, as soon as many employers hear anything about cancer, the risk of losing a job or being able to get a job rises dramatically. And again, in the United States, because health insurance usually comes with employment, it makes having cancer even more perilous.

Defining and acting on your mission

Thinking and dreaming of a mission is fun. We can conjure up the most fortuitous circumstances and desirable outcomes. Things get interesting, and sometimes less pleasant, when we must decide and act. Action requires that we move past our fear and anxiety. We must also believe strongly in the mission we choose; without true desire and commitment, a mission is more of a burden than a goal.

For me, moving past fear is best done one step at a time, taking every day as it comes my way and to acknowledge the little victories, no matter how small or insignificant they seem at the time. Don’t wait until you achieve the big milestone; mark the miles along the way.

In many treatment centers, you get rewarded when you complete a course of chemo or radiation treatment by ringing a bell or getting a certificate of achievement. Why not reward yourself every day of treatment, even if it’s simply taking 5 minutes to close your eyes, breathe, smile, and reflect on being one day closer to completion and one step closer to health and wholeness.

Cancer patients share a common mission of staying alive. That mission requires courage and a strong purpose. It may be family and other relationships, work we want to do, milestones we aim to reach; often it's simply hanging on to every moment of the only life we are assured of having.

When we hear the words, “You have cancer,” we reach a point of no return, our own Rubicon to cross. Many if not most cancer patients will find themselves back on shore, on stable footing, and back to life as usual—perhaps even better. Some will never be able to return but will squeeze as much living as possible out of every day.

Whatever your situation happens to be, I hope you make it your mission to navigate your cancer crossing with courage, purpose and meaning.