The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

On an Island Far Away From Home

by Mandy BrixeyPatient and SurvivorJuly 31, 2023View more posts from Mandy Brixey

I don’t think I can think of anything more isolating than having cancer and ongoing treatment in a foreign land away from home, friends, and family. I moved from the U.S. to Japan in 2016, and was diagnosed with cancer in January of 2022, having been in Japan for 6 years so far. The shock of the diagnosis wasn’t enough, but the weight of the decision of: where do I do treatment? Should I do it here in Japan, or go back home to the U.S.? What if my treatment options change? What about money? What if I make the wrong choice, and get treatment too late? What if, what if, what if?

As many unfortunately experience, along with the diagnosis came friends who suddenly left, likely scared of the idea of losing their friend and having to face issues such as grief. Those who can easily run away from this did, some stayed, and to those I will be forever grateful, but many distanced themselves. I can’t blame them. When my grandma was diagnosed with cancer, I too distanced myself, even more so when she got sicker and started to fade. She wasn’t my grandma to me anymore, but like some different person that I didn’t want to see or even be around. I was afraid, so I understood how they felt, but it still didn’t succeed to make me feel any less alone.

I remember being hospitalized for months due to chemo and living alone. I was in a private room for most of the time. I was alone when I got sick, or when I couldn’t sleep. I cried and worried alone, and when my voice could no longer be used, I couldn’t even call my mother or any friends or partners to talk with them. My only voice was in my head, and text just never seemed to be enough.

Many times I heard the words “I wish I was there. I would help you”. While I appreciated the warm feelings that were trying to be conveyed, it once again did nothing but make me feel more alone by reminding me that there were no friends or family to sit with me. With coronavirus a constant threat, hospitals in Japan prohibited any visitors at all. The nurses were my only companions, and without a voice, I struggled to communicate, let alone in another language.

Even in the diagnosis in Japan, they said, “You have laryngeal cancer. We don’t know why.” There was no time for questions. I was pressured to be quickly whisked away to get a CT to determine the stage of the tumor. I was crying too much to even be able to ask questions, even though I had many. I felt like I was the only inhabitant of cancer island, and no matter what I said, no one could understand anything I was going through.

Many times during treatment, I begged doctors to stop, saying that I couldn’t do anymore, that it was just too hard alone. By this time, I was over 50% done with my treatment, and was firmly, yet gently encouraged by my oncologists to continue. Even after the treatment was over, the recovery in my opinion was harder. And I once again had to do it alone. There was no one to care for me when I finally went home. I had to make my own food, make myself eat and drink, make sure I took my medicine, and deal with the side effects alone.

I wouldn’t wish struggling with cancer alone on anyone. There are more cons than pros, in my opinion. If it wasn’t for the magic of technology and my cat being with me, I don’t know that I would have been able to survive this period of isolation and loneliness. However, one pro that came out of this, is that I’m now stronger than I’ve ever been mentally. If I could handle cancer alone, I can handle anything else. I can’t think of anything worse to challenge this. Cancer was a journey I didn’t ask for, especially alone. But I came out a stronger person mentally thanks to it.

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