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Winning Against Cancer, Part 2: Community TV

  • Richard Cohen:

    What do you tell somebody who is newly diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma?

  • Jonathan Alter:

    Um, well ...

  • Richard:

    What’s the roadmap you give them?

  • Jonathan:

    I tell them that they need to listen really carefully to their doctor’s instructions. And because I was kind of a -- not when I was sick, but before this -- I was the kind of a guy who, you know, would sort of half listen and kind of do things my way. And I decided that I was going to follow the doctor’s instructions to a T. So if he said don’t get on an airplane because that’s an infection risk, I didn’t get on an airplane. Or even if he was, you know, sort of half cautioned me not to get on an airplane, I didn’t. Some discipline is very important. And I also think it helps to give you some control because the worst feeling at the beginning is that loss of control. And something else I tell them that was told to me by a woman who died of breast cancer not long after she and I spoke. She said to me -- and she knew she was dying -- and she said, “You know what, the period that you’re in, at diagnosis, is the worst period of the whole ordeal. That feeling of disorientation like you’ve been hit by a truck going a hundred miles an hour, that feeling in your head at the beginning is the worst.” So what I tell people who are newly diagnosed is just get yourself mentally through the next month and you’re gonna be a lot better off.

  • Richard:

    Talk about your coping strategy.

  • Jonathan:

    Well, eventually I developed what I called my HERMAN plan. “H” stood for humor: I had to watch or read something funny every day. Very, very important. “E” stood for exercise. So even when I was just done with my bone marrow transplant and could barely walk, I tried to at least walk a half block and then I’d take it to a block, and then pretty soon I was walking a half mile, then a mile. Then before long I was running. “R,” religion. I’m not a big religious person, but especially when I was very sick, I tried to read something spiritual even if for just a few minutes. “M,” meditation. I did start to meditate. I haven’t kept it up, but when I was sick it helped me a lot. “A” stood for attitude adjustment, because I could be kind of difficult to deal with around the house. I was taking it out a little bit too much on my family when I decided, as part of my program, that I would try to deal with that. And then the “N,” niceness. Just to other people outside of my family, particularly anybody who had cancer. I think that if you’ve been through this, you owe a lot to other people and to try to a help those who’ve been suffering so.

  • Richard:

    I had a very difficult experience with anger when I had colon cancer and my children. And I realized that I was taking it out on my kids and it was a very painful time. I mean, how did you deal with your children?

  • Jonathan:

    I dealt with my children in an old-fashioned way, which was that we did not talk about it all the time, you know. In fact, I blew it the first time when I told them that I had cancer, you know, we had a little family meeting and I had taken too many sleeping pills and was kind of woozy and my wife basically -- when I started into the explanation -- she sent me up to bed and she took care of the rest of it. And you know, we had very very few conversations about it afterwards. And I decided that if ... I’d let them bring it up. They knew about it. There weren’t any secrets, but we didn’t feel that it was something we had to talk about all the time. We all had the same objective, which was to get our pre-cancer life back as quickly as possible. That’s all I wanted was my old life back and that’s all they wanted. And so this kind of new age stuff about “Oh, we’ll just talk about every dimension, we’ll talk about it all the time.” No, I’m kind of in the more old-fashioned category: a little denial’s not so bad. Family secrets? Big things? That’s a problem. But that doesn’t mean you have to share all the details. Now, they sometimes thought that I was acting strange because I became obsessed with them, making sure that they stayed clean because I was worried about infection risk and that they, you know, washed their hands, not obsessively, but properly. And so they kind of looked a little bit askance at that. And my wife and I had some issues because I felt like she wasn’t coddling me enough, that she wasn’t pampering me enough. And her feeling was she didn’t want to create a situation of dependency that would then affect our relationship when I got better. And she was absolutely right about that, in retrospect. And I think we emerged from this with our marriage stronger, even though at the time I was lashing out at her more than I should have for one reason or another. And these illnesses can be hard on marriages sometimes. There’s no getting around that. But it’s ... but they can also make them stronger at the broken places.

  • Richard:

    Terrific. Thank you.

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