Opinion

Opinion | Stephen Blyth

Cancer, chemo, and the road to ‘self-compassion’

Globe Staff illustration

The National Cancer Institute tries to be helpful: “At some point during chemotherapy, you may feel: Anxious; Depressed; Afraid; Angry; Frustrated; Helpless; Lonely. It is normal to have a wide range of feelings while going through chemotherapy. After all, living with cancer and getting treatment can be stressful.”

These words made me want to yell. Do they not understand? It is not remotely normal to see only bleakness, to be continuously angst-ridden, and to lack the spirit even to say good night to my precious daughters.

“Many people find that light exercise, such as walking, riding a bike and doing yoga, helps them feel better.” This advice enraged me: The very idea of exercise was laughable. Each night I would resolve to walk round the block tomorrow. But in the morning I would lie unable to rise, unable to sleep, taunted by piles of unread, unreadable books by my bed. 2.30 p.m. 5 p.m. A shuffle downstairs for a bowl of cereal, the act of eating an unexpected respite, then back to bed. My wife was unwavering in the face of such misery: You will feel better, it will all be OK. I knew she believed this, but I did not.

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I dreaded the mail, letters slapping against the floor. Months earlier I had been a chief executive overseeing 275 people and billions of dollars. Now the prospect of the electricity bill overwhelmed me.

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The nadir came in January. I was due to start teaching again that month, something that had always filled me with joy. My oncologist assured me that nothing cancer-wise was keeping me from the classroom. But as I lay at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute with the latest round of chemo flowing into my vein, the idea of lecturing seemed utterly fanciful. I could sense the crushing consequences if I abandoned what felt like the last connection with my former self.

“Let’s think about what you actually need to do.” I had met the Dana-Farber social worker only four brief times, yet with extraordinary ability she had come to understand me with an insight that seemed miraculous.

“Have you prepared the first lecture?”

“Yes.”

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“That’s great progress. What else do you need to do this week?”

“Arrange a meeting with my teaching fellows.”

“OK. Let’s see if you can send that e-mail. It’s all you need to do this week.”

One e-mail in a week: She knew it was all that I could do. It was enough. I sent the e-mail, and felt the first stirrings of self-compassion, a word whose meaning I was only beginning to grasp.

I met a faculty friend who revealed he had suffered lymphoma years ago and undergone particularly nasty chemotherapy. He was energetic, articulate and thoughtful, and I found myself desperately envying him. Then he said, “I found the nonphysical effects of chemo the hardest. Psychologically I fell apart.” I felt another flash of self-compassion. So it’s OK to be like this. I had been given a lifeline.

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One week before the first lecture, I sat in my office and realized I could not solve elementary problems from my own book. Hours passed as I stared at the mathematics. My mind seemed to be evaporating into white space. And then, suddenly: I can do this one! I was awash with joy as I slowly wrote out the elegant solution. My mind was coming back to life.

The El Alamein of my cancer battle soon followed: the first class. Harvard Hall was packed, my first joke raised a good laugh, and I saw lively, engaged eyes. “There’s something different with the course this year,” I said. “I don’t have any hair. Apologies if I have to miss the occasional lecture.”

I was exhausted after the class, unable to speak. A former colleague called me. “You are teaching with chemo? That is . . . unbelievable. That is way more than enough!”

For a couple of weeks all my energy went into those three hours in the classroom. I still lay in bed until noon, but I had been given another lifeline to hold: teaching and chemo is More Than Enough. I no longer tore at myself for being unable to do anything else. I was getting to know self-compassion better, and embrace it.

My last chemo session arrived — on a Monday, the day before lecture. I told my students to look out for a cancellation, but I didn’t need to send one. I had reached the toxin turning point. From now on, chemicals were headed only one way: out of my body.

In March a stomach biopsy revealed no more abnormalities. In April a PET scan showed that the lung tumor had disappeared. “Do I need to watch for anything?” My oncologist was delightfully blunt. “No. If anything crops up we’ll deal with it. Go out and live your life.”

The last lecture was a celebration. My energy had surged back throughout the semester, and over dinners and in office hours I had come to know and admire my students: enterprising, kind, sharp, and life-affirming. “You will notice that my hair has grown back a bit. With wonderful timing, I had the all clear from my scan last week.” The sharp gasp of “Oh!” before the applause moved me to tears. “It has been an utter joy to teach this class,” I ended. I did not explain to them that it had helped turn my life around.

Stephen Blyth is professor of the practice of statistics at Harvard University. He was previously president and CEO of the Harvard Management Company.