Breaking Down Cancer's Choices Like Music

It’s funny, recently the subject of music came up and how I used it during cancer to relax on those days when nothing else worked. It’s also how I ended up spending way too much money on vinyl records, but that’s for another post. I was trying to explain to someone how a digital recording of music works and that’s when it hit me – it’s a perfect analogy for how I dealt with the overwhelming diagnosis of lymphoma.

For those who don’t know how it works, let me give you a quick lesson on digital music. Everything we listen to these days (with the exception of vinyl) is (probably) digitally recorded. What that means is that every, say, millisecond of the music is broken down into tiny pieces, and those pieces represent all the different frequencies and volumes of the sound that is being played at that millisecond. Now, the more pieces you can break up each millisecond into, the better the music will sound. That’s why a CD sounds better than an old MP3 recording of the same song – it’s got more information per millisecond. Now, granted this is a bit of an oversimplification but it was as I was explaining this to a friend that I realized that it’s exactly what I did with the tidal wave of information and emotions that hit when then doctor first uttered that word “cancer.”

A cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming

It goes without saying that cancer patients who are recently diagnosed get inundated with more data than the IRS on April 16th. It’s such an overwhelming amount of information being thrown at you, in fact, that you just start saying “yes” to everything like you’re ordering a Philly cheesesteak with the works, when, in reality, you’re not even sure what some of the words the doctors are saying mean. It’s just that they expect you to absorb, contemplate, and decide on all this stuff in the blink of an eye, so you just do the best you can and hope to Hell that your oncologist knows what they’re doing.

I was in that unenviable position myself and on top of it, there was a small war brewing between the half of my friends and family who wanted me to just “do it,” and the other half who wanted me to go and find a second opinion. There was so much noise it was like standing next to the speakers at a rock concert inside a tornado. I had to find a way to parse it all and quickly so that I could make the important decisions that needed to be made with enough confidence that I wouldn’t simply be relying on fate to deliver me from lymphoma. So, I started breaking it down.

Breaking down my options

Just like the way that digital recordings break down music, I broke down the information I was getting on my cancer to the smallest parts possible. For example, because of my heart, I might have trouble with one of the chemo drugs in the CHOP protocol – the accepted standard of care for lymphoma, and the doctor wanted to know if I wanted to risk it or go forward without it. So, I broke down the choices to their smallest parts.

If I did the protocol as it was written then there was a more than likely chance I would damage my heart further, and to break it down even more, it meant that the already 20% less heart usage I had could be pushed below the 35% ejection fraction threshold – the line of demarcation in which doctors believe a “normal” life is possible. So, at the most basic level, I was risking the still-viable heart I had inside my chest. When I broke down the choice like that the answer became obvious – what’s the point of making it through cancer if I was going to end up with a heart that went bad? There was none, so the solution became clear – try the lymphoma protocol without the heart-damaging drug.

It can be hard to move forward

As you can see above, even though I wasn’t conscious of it, this is how I broke down all the choices I had to make in that first few weeks after diagnosis – the same way that a digital recording breaks down music. When you are faced with life-changing decisions it's hard to move forward even when you aren’t on a clock and if you add the ticking time-bomb called cancer and you have a recipe for inaction, the perfect environment for “I’m just gonna put my fate in someone else’s hands and hope for the best.” It’s the natural reaction, especially when it comes to medical decisions and doctors, but trust me when I tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way. If you break down your choices to the smallest component parts, the answer frequently becomes obvious.

I’ve talked about making decisions in your cancer treatment (and life) before, and that’s because it’s a big part of what makes you who you are and determines what you end up living with (or without), and I want to do everything I can to make that easier for you. I hope that this example helps you to digest and process all the medical info thrown at you from day one of “you have cancer.” Just remember, we all go through it, and for me, I’d rather put my fate in my own hands rather than an oncologist I’ve just met. Talk soon.

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