Listen to advice and accept instruction,
and in the end you will be wise.
Knowledge is power. That is what I was taught as a twenty year old nursing student. We learned to empower our patients wherever we worked by sharing information with them. Whether we were preparing people for a procedure, or for a surgery, or for having a baby, or for living with a chronic illness, one of our most important tasks was to educate people about what to expect, what choices they had, what was going on in their bodies, how to speak up for themselves, how to get support and how to take good care of themselves.
Perhaps it is because of this early training that one of my primary coping skills is to gather information. When I am faced with a difficulty in life, I gather as much information as I can so I can make informed decisions.
Because of the Internet, we now have a great deal of information at our finger tips. It is a wonderful thing. I had five days of waiting between the time I was told I had been diagnosed with cancer to the time I was scheduled to see the surgeon. During that time I read a lot.
I tried to go to the more reputable sites for information. There is a lot of misinformation on the Internet and I did not want to needlessly add to my anxiety. I also tried to read for no more than thirty minutes at a time in order to avoid information overload.
The reading yielded some helpful information. First, my particular diagnosis was considered by many professionals to be pre-cancerous. The reason for this is that ductal carcinoma in situ means that the abnormal cells are contained inside a duct gland. Because the abnormal cells have not spread to the surrounding area it is not considered to be a full blown cancer. This meant that my life was not in immediate danger. And it meant that I would probably not have to undergo chemotherapy.
I also learned that in spite of the fact that this was considered to be pre-cancerous it was still serious. It seemed that there was good reason to believe that these abnormal cells—which were contained in a duct gland—could break through the wall of the duct gland and mutate into a more aggressive kind of cancer if left untreated. This meant I needed to have surgery. These cells had to be removed.
Finally, I learned that the choices that were usually offered to a woman with this kind of cancer were to either have a mastectomy or to have a lumpectomy followed by five to eight weeks of daily radiation treatments. A mastectomy, of course, would mean losing a breast. Five to eight weeks of daily radiation treatment would mean fatigue, possible skin burns, some impact on the lung—although probably small—and a daily disruption in my schedule. This information was all very sobering.
All of this research helped me know what I was facing and what I was not likely to have to face. It helped me go to the appointment with the surgeon with a bit less anxiety and with more informed questions.
Having some information about whatever life challenges we are experiencing can help to reduce our anxieties. It can eliminate some of the uncertainties. It helps us better prepare ourselves.
But I needed more than facts. I also needed the kind of information that would give me emotional and spiritual strength. I found this kind of information in talking with women who had been through the experience of breast cancer. Two of my closest friends are breast cancer survivors. They offered information, emotional support, understanding, and the unspoken assurance that I would get through this and that life would return to “normal” again.
What they shared informed both my mind and my heart. They offered me hope and strength. It lit a candle in what felt like a very dark passage way.
I had seen the value of this kind of personal information sharing years earlier when I helped lead a support group for people living with cancer. Group members shared all kinds of helpful information—what to expect during different treatments, how to get through long, difficult nights, how to enjoy life as much as possible while going through such a challenging season. This level of information and support was priceless.
When I was a young nurse in training in the early 70’s, attitudes about talking to people who had life-threatening diagnoses were changing rapidly. Up until that time it was not unusual to withhold information from people about the seriousness of their illness. This information was actually kept a secret from the person who most needed to know. I remember being stunned by the thought that people had once been kept in the dark about their medical conditions. They had no opportunity to get their affairs in order and no chance to say those last difficult, tender good-byes.
Some information is painful. There is a strong instinct in us to resist or avoid news we don’t want to be true. When I first began to remember the traumatic events of my childhood, the instinct to resist these memories was very powerful. I had similar experiences when marital and parenting crises emerged in my life. I did not want these things to be true. I did not want more information about them, I just wanted to make them go away.
We cannot, however, face problems unless we know we have them. Gathering information is empowering because we have a better idea about our choices and about what might be required of us. Gathering information also helps us stay grounded. We need to stay closely connected to reality—whether it is painful or hopeful—because this is what leads to emotional, mental, spiritual, physical and relational health.
This is true of all problems in life—problems in our personal lives, in our families, in our society, in our world. Our work is to keep listening to the truth, and to gather both the difficult and the hopeful information about that truth, so we can bring needed correction and healing to our lives, our relationships and our world.
When you don’t know what to do…gather information.
Questions for reflection and discussion
1. What information have you gathered about your situation that has been difficult to learn?
2. What information have you gathered that has given you greater hope and strength?
3. What might help you gather information without creating information overload?