The Coin Flip: What my so-so odds at beating cancer taught me about asking for help

“Rare as hell,” my primary oncologist Dr. Lipton said as he reviewed the results of my latest bone marrow biopsy. My leukemia had gotten real aggressive, real quick, entering unexpectedly into what’s called the Blast Crisis phase. And while most of the medical mumbo jumbo I’d been bombarded with flew right over my head, I figured anything with a name like “Blast Crisis” couldn’t be a good thing. By the look on his face, Dr. Lipton was as stunned as I was at the latest development. He told me that in twenty years he’d only ever seen something like this happen once before.

Mama always told me I was special.

The medication I had been taking was no longer considered a viable long-term treatment option for me. Instead, I would need to blitzkrieg my body with months of powerful chemotherapy and radiation in an effort to pound the disease into remission. But even that wouldn’t keep the monster at bay. No, I’d need to rid myself of my defective bone marrow entirely and replace it through a risky stem cell transplant — assuming, of course, they could even find me a donor.

I worked up enough saliva in my mouth to croak out a question. “What are my odds?”

Dr. Lipton didn’t sugar-coat it. “Forty to fifty per cent.”

Hoo boy.

I returned home from my appointment with Dr. Lipton, shell-shocked. Forty to fifty per cent. A coin toss, really. With that in mind, I grabbed a quarter from the desk in my basement office. “Heads I live, tails I die” I said, flicking the coin into the air.

I caught the quarter and held it under my sweaty palm on the back of my other hand. I held my breath and took a peek.

Heads. Phew.

Though thrilled to have Lady Luck on my side, I knew it would take more than a fortunate coin flip to get through this. There are times in life when going it alone isn’t an option. This was one of those times. To survive this journey, I was going to need one hell of a team.

At first my mind went to the obvious things: my doctors, nurses, radiologists and pharmacists. But as my treatment got underway, I quickly realized I was going to need many other supporters.

My parents. My brothers and sisters. My friends. Nutritionists, social workers, chaplains, physical therapists, counsellors. Heck, even my dog Stockie would play a key role in keeping my spirits lifted.

Lean on your team

No one is an island. There’s strength in numbers. Two heads are better than one. Whatever your preferred cliché, overcoming obstacles happens by having the right people by your side.

I would have to choke down a lot of big, nasty pills during my treatment. But the toughest pill to swallow was giving up my independence and asking for help. I hated putting my family and friends through this. Worse still, I hated the idea of being a burden. But as time went by and as the treatment took its toll, I would have to accept that I did, in fact, need help.

I also started to better understand that I wasn’t being a burden — my family and friends were desperate to help. When you’re facing an obstacle, the feeling of helplessness can be crushing not just for you, but for your loved ones as well. Letting them chip in, even if you might not think you need it, can be as much a gift to them as to you.

It took a while to be okay with it, but eventually I allowed myself to share my heavy load. Friends and family graciously offered to help out with household chores, rides to and from my appointments and other everyday necessities so I could focus on getting better.

No matter who you are, there will be times when your motivation flags, when everything that needs doing overwhelms you or when you can’t see the way forward. At those times, you’ll need to lean on the strengths and support of others.

Indeed, as I packed my bag for my month-long stay at the hospital to kick off my chemotherapy protocol, I was grateful to have more than a coin flip to count on.

Who’s on your team? Take some time to identify some of the key players who can help you on your journey. Who do you know who can provide you with motivation? Expertise? Distraction? A listening ear? On the flip side, who’s getting in your way of achieving your goals? Be mindful of negative people who might be draining your mojo.

Once you’ve identified your players, talk to them. Whether you formally invite them to be part of your journey is up to you, but it’s important to know who you can turn to when confronted with an obstacle.

Below are some of the roles various team members can play. Bottom line? Build a team that’s best equipped to handle the challenge at hand.

The inner circle

The Rock — Your Rocks are the people in your life you can depend on, no matter what. They’re the ones who’ll drop everything to help you, the ones you can spazz out on and not worry it’ll ruin your relationship, the ones you can call at 2 a.m. to come get you after your car breaks down. They’re also the ones who will tell you straight up when you’re acting like a total jerk and the ones who’ll be more than happy to give your butt a whooping when it needs it.

The Motivator — Finding your way through the wilderness can be exhausting — physically, mentally, emotionally. When the tank is running low, seek out your Motivators: the ones who always have a supportive thing to say. Positive energy is contagious. One coffee date with a Motivator can reenergize you for days.

The Distractor — Some people will tell you to weed out all distractions and focus on the problem in front of you. However, although hard work and focus are critical, sometimes you just need a break. At those times, having someone you can go see a movie with and not talk about whatever you’re going through can be exactly what you need.

The experts

The Pro — Who are the experts you’ll need on your team? If you’re starting a new business, it could be your web developer, banker, partner and accountant. If you’re facing something like cancer, it could be your doctors, nurses, acupuncturist and pharmacist. If you’re training for a marathon, it could be your personal trainer, physiotherapist, nutritionist and the dude who can get you a deal on the gel that keeps your nipples from chafing.

The Mentor — Do you know someone who has experienced what you’re going through? Whether you’re looking for a new career, dealing with the loss of a loved one or picking up the pieces in the aftermath of a broken relationship, find someone who’s “been there, done that.” Not only for advice, but also for inspiration that there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel.

The Unbiased Ear — As great as friends and family can be at listening and understanding, your personal relationship and history means there will always be certain biases and baggage between you. You may be more willing and able to open up to professionals — be it counsellors, therapists, support groups, life coaches or the person at the other end of the crisis hotline — who can provide a more neutral and objective point of view.

The ones to be wary of

The Buzzkill — Also known as the Naysayer, Party Pooper or Sad Sack, the Buzzkill oozes negativity from his pores. Dissenting opinions and constructive feedback are great, but watch out for people who are doggedly pessimistic.

The Blocker — The Blocker has a knack of derailing your efforts. It could be the co-worker who doesn’t pull her weight or the micro-managing boss who doesn’t give you any creative latitude. It could be the friend who’s an expert at convincing you to go to an all-night kegger when you have an exam the next day. Keep Blockers off your team whenever you can.

The Biscuit — A Biscuit is someone who crumbles under pressure. When dealing with a big challenge, you want people on your team who know how to handle stress. For example, your mother may be the sweetest person in the world, but if she’s breaking down and yelling at your doctors every time you go in for a check-up, you may want to bring someone else along for your next appointment.

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Lessons learned from leukemia

More life lessons

Cancer reminded me that life is the greatest teacher of all. The following stories share obstacle-busting lessons from some of life’s other awesome and absurd moments — from sleeping in a barn to multiple run-ins with Bill Clinton’s bodyguards to nearly driving a car off a cliff.