It is what it is
My Allograft 2018/19 – 20. 14th April 2019
By Andy Burrows, 14 April 2019
Back to the Future
Most of you will know of the actor Michael J Fox from the 1980s – mainly as Marty McFly in the iconic Back to the Future movies. He was also the original Teen Wolf and Alex in Family Ties. For younger readers, you will probably have heard his voice as Stuart in Stuart Little.
The challenge for Michael J Fox was that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991 at the age of 29. He kept it secret for seven years, but turned to alcohol for much of that time.
Since 1998, however, he’s been a strong supporter of research into Parkinson’s and has helped to raise awareness of the disease.
It seems he spent seven years living in denial in the face of increasing physical symptoms. But since he has accepted his situation, he has been both happier in himself and very much an inspiration to others.
And he has come out with some great quotable wisdom, born of adversity. One of my favourite Fox quotes is this one:
“Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation; it means understanding that something is what it is and that there’s got to be a way through it.”
It is what it is… really, it is!
I have to admit that I use the phrase, “it is what it is”, perhaps a little too much!
Certain members of my family (!) poke fun of me when I say it, because it’s one of those sayings that appears to be so obvious that it’s meaningless! It’s, strictly speaking, a tautology. Of course, anything is what it is by definition!
“Thanks for that,” they say, “I would have never known that if you hadn’t told me!”
But I actually think it’s quite profound, as well as being necessary for the right attitude to difficult situations (like the one I find myself in… again… and again… and again!).
What it means is that there are some things we can’t change. We don’t control everything. There are a lot of things outside our control. All we can say about them is that they are what they are!
But it’s not only that. That’s the necessary starting point of humbly accepting that we are not, in fact, completely masters of our own destiny.
But there is another aspect of the phrase, one that prevents that turning into fatalistic cynicism (or “resignation”, as Fox would call it).
There is the implication that, whilst we may not be able to change certain facts about our situation, we can and should control our response to our situation. “There must be a way through it.”
When you see a pothole or a bump in the road, what do you do? Stop, get out of the car, kick it, and sit on the road wallowing in self-pity? No! You respond by turning the steering wheel, slowing down, and going round (or otherwise carefully navigating). It may not be the smooth ride you wanted, but the obstacles are not usually going to stop you!
“Yeah,” you might say, “but what if someone dumps Mount Everest in the way (seeing as you like that analogy so much!)?”
Ok, so some people may not climb Mount Everest if it did happen to appear in the road on the way to work! They may turn round and go home…
… And I’m not going to complicate the analogy by asking what if it was a matter of life and death… because for some people it may not actually change their response!
The point is that, even in life and death situations, we still have a choice on how to respond. We can climb, we can do the difficult thing; or we can do the easier thing and go home.
We may not like the climb. But it’s pointless moaning about it. Moaning about it is not going to take the mountain away. If we decide to climb, we should just get on with the climb, and give it our all. If we decide to go home, we should just go, and enjoy the safety of home.
The details are worth talking about
But this brings me to the thought I was referring to at the end of my last post.
For people with a positive mindset, we recognise what we can’t change, and look for the way through it.
Others, with a less positive outlook, tend to freeze and/or look for ways to ignore (or hide from) what’s happening. Some may even be paralysed with the fear that it may actually be worse than they know, or it may get worse in the future
What set me thinking about this was someone commenting that I share a lot of detail about my illness and treatment. I don’t hold back.
And sometimes I worry that readers will think that I’m sharing all the details in order to have a good old self-indulgent moan! Or perhaps I do it to get sympathy?!
But that’s not the case.
There are a few reasons I’m so open about the details, and often my vulnerability and weakness, in dealing with my cancer and treatment.
One is that I want to encourage those who come along after me to face similar things. I don’t want them to see an unreal bravado in me, because that would just discourage them.
Another reason is that I don’t like people to think that, just because I tend to be upbeat, having cancer and stem cell transplants can’t be that bad. That means I have to share the downs as well as the ups.
But, I’ve also come to understand that positive people are real about what they’re facing. Even if it’s scary, they name their fear. Name it all! Describe it! Analyse it in detail. Don’t hide from it. Don’t lie about it (to yourself or others). Don’t try to blot it out. Admit your fear (and what you’re afraid of).
Acknowledge what you can’t change about it. It is what it is!
But then acknowledge that you have a choice – you can decide/change your response.
Being honest with ourselves
I’m not saying that’s easy. And I’m not saying that you have to be gung-ho about your adversity.
There are times you have to give yourself time and permission to sigh, or cry, or scream in frustration, or grieve a loss (of physical ability, relationships, life opportunities, or prosperity).
That is to be real not only about the facts of the situation but your own emotional response.
And I’ll be honest. This subject has some relevance for me at the moment.
I wake up some days feeling low, and I can’t shift that feeling all day. Motivating myself to do stuff is hard. Doing stuff seems pointless, because it seems like I’m only heading for another failure.
(Mainly, I believe, this happens when I allow myself to look too far into the future and to open myself to anxiety about that unknown future. But also I allow artificially “limiting beliefs” to creep in – for example, negative thoughts like, “this Supercharged Finance thing isn’t going to work, because I’m no good at marketing!”)
And I have to give myself a good stern talking to! And I get on with things, take the next step on the path, and trust that tomorrow will be brighter.
I mentioned this to the nurse specialist when I went for my last weekly check-up. And she said several helpful things.
First, it’s not unusual to feel like that. In fact, it’s pretty normal. (To put it in terms of my favourite metaphor, whilst I am on the descent, I am still actually on Mount Everest, and therefore it’s still a tough journey.)
Second, whilst my coping strategies are good, it’s also good to acknowledge that my feelings are part of the reality of the situation rather than trying to ignore them.
Third, even the most resilient person will run out of energy and resilience eventually.
And finally, she offered to refer me to the dedicated psychologist who works with stem cell transplant patients. (The fact that they have dedicated psychologists for stem cell transplant patients shows that they know how mentally tough this is.)
Can’t do any harm, I thought. The more I’m able to talk about stuff, the more I’ll be able to get things out in the open and see them for what they are. And maybe there are some new strategies I can try to help keep me afloat.
So, we shall see how that goes.
Keep treading the path
As far as other things go, nothing else has changed since last week. I keep putting one foot after the other.
And so, I just want to finish with two more Michael J Fox quotes, to leave things on a positive and uplifting note. I agree with both of these:
“I see possibilities in everything. For everything that’s taken away, something of greater value has been given.”
“… The feeling of being able to serve…to be able to offer up my story as much as it is uncomfortable, it’s a tremendous privilege.”
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What is a stem cell transplant?
If you want to get more insight into what a stem cell transplant is and how it works, the Anthony Nolan Trust has some really good information in its website. You can find that here: https://www.anthonynolan.org/patients-and-families/understanding-stem-cell-transplants
My 2015 transplant was an autologous stem cell transplant (a.k.a. an autograft). In 2019 I’m having an allogeneic VUD (voluntary unrelated donor) stem cell transplant (a.k.a. an allograft).
Becoming a stem cell donor
By the way, if you want to find out more about being a stem cell donor (please!), here are a few links (UK-based mainly):
(Stem cell and bone marrow donors are amazingly kind people who offer to sacrifice their time and endure some mild discomfort to help save the lives of people like me who have a type of blood cancer – lymphoma, myeloma or leukaemia.)