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The Second Wave

secondwaveI am riding the Second Wave.

The Second Wave is when, months after your diagnosis, you feel like you’re being told you have cancer all over again, because you never really heard it the first time.

I’m writing a column for an online magazine about my experience with cancer, and a few weeks ago I was working on an article about deciding to start chemotherapy ASAP versus wait two weeks to preserve my fertility (the column hasn’t been published yet, but I’ll let you know as soon as it goes live).

As I started writing, I realized there was much I didn’t remember about that day in the hospital or the decision process. I know I got a tremendous amount of bad news on one day, and that it was very upsetting, but the details of who said what and the gravity of my emotions were big empty spaces in my mind.

So I called my mom. I told her I was writing the article. I asked her, “Hey mom, what do you remember about all that?”

I heard her sigh on the other end of the line. “You don’t remember?” she said. “Oh, Elana…”

The story she told me was so crushing that I couldn’t believe I didn’t remember it, although I thanked my mind for protecting me from pain I clearly could not have dealt with at the time.

She told me how at first I didn’t understand what the doctor meant when he said I would be infertile, and he had to say it again, and when he left the room I started sobbing uncontrollably, and could not be consoled, and even though it seemed like I was given a choice, there really was no choice because we all knew if I waited two weeks to start treatment it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that I could die.

As I listened to my mom, I felt so bad for the girl she was talking about in her story. That girl had no idea how bad things were. She didn’t know how much worse they would get.

In many ways I am just realizing now the gravity of my situation. The dust has settled, my routine is more stable, and there is time and mental space to realize what is happening to me.

There is no possible way I could have taken in the weight of my diagnosis when it first happened, so the “taking in” seems to be happening now.

I have cancer? Is this real? Why is this happening?

Where did my hair go? Where did my life go?

This is the Second Wave.


Photo by Tony Hisgett


  1. Heartbreaking, just heartbreaking Elana.

  2. mohammed says:

    Very. Touching. I wish u could make a movie , not for the money but for the memories.

  3. As a fellow cancer survivor I can completely identify and empathize with this entire post. I must admit that even a couple years removed from treatment and the craziness I still find myself having these moments of “did that really happen?” Keep on fighting the good fight each and every day and everything will work out great. Sending positive vibes your way!

  4. Ride the wave.

  5. Hi Elana,

    It’s so good to hear from you! And I just want to let you know that I just shared your blog post “How to Get Over a Break Up” with my 22 yr old son who is going through one right now. It was really just what he needed to hear so thank you for that. It helped. Feel better lovely Elana, k

  6. Sending you a big hug from Australia.
    I’m coming up to my 1 year anniversary post- breast cancer diagnosis and although I’m coming out of the woods physically, my brain is just starting to say “what happened to the past year?!”
    Reading back over my blog is helpfu to mel …it wasn’t all just a bad dream.

  7. Kathleen says:

    The trauma of this diagnosis is huge. Almost eight years out, and this mind is still digesting it. Good to read your writings again, Elana. Your deep core of strength and goodness will continue to get you through this shock and sorrow. Sending healing thoughts to you!

  8. Riding the 2nd wave is my present. 7 years ago I was diagnosed with MS. That moment when an eye doctor in NYC told me blantly ” you have a brain disease.” Gave me a number to call and hinted I should leave the room. I was stroke with such fear that became me for the next 7 years. Everything I did was embedded with fear. Cut a salad, go to work, talk to my lovers, it was all a mess. Than I read a book which helped me realize how deep the trauma is and started a healing process just from that moment. I use whirlpool as an image to help me. There is only one way put of a whirlpool. From the bottom.
    Wishing you recovery and streangth like you gave me.

  9. Good morning, dear woman. I can’t begin to understand, but I am holding you close to my heart, sending love and visualizing healing for your tired body and soul.

  10. Beautifully described. So true for so many traumas. The second wave…

  11. This ‘second wave’ and blocking out whole chunks of the cancer experience is what lead to a couple of weeks of PTS after watching the movie 50/50. There was so much in that movie that we had blocked out, but they captured perfectly. We watched this movie after being cancer free for 7 years! You think you’ve processed it, you think you are coping well….then wham! It shows up again. Thank you for your honest posts.

  12. Sharon Fratepietro says:

    Elana, there is not one thing good about what has happened to you–but though you can’t change the fact of your illness, once you have healed you will have an understanding and compassion for your patients that few other doctors can achieve. So hang on for yourself and for all the other suffering people who will need your help in years to come.

  13. I completely understand the ‘ 2nd Wave ‘. I was told I had stage 2 Hodgkins in December and ever since every Dr visit I only hear what I want to focus on which for the most part is any words of encouragement. This is why I always have a 2nd set of ears go with me because I know they hear all and write it down, good and bad.

    My thoughts and prayers are always with you.


  14. Dear Elena,
    Your formal training as an MD psychiatry, your incredible intellect, your communication skills, your energy, your cancer have combined to help me to better understand what I thought to be one of my short-comings. When I was diagnosed with cancer. When I lost my job near the end of my career. When I have encountered personal loss. I only seem to “get about half-of-it”. You have helped me to realize that it is just one way that God helps me to cope; one bite at a time.



  15. My prayers are with you.

  16. Nicole Cleary says:

    I really appreciate your ability to articulate the cancer experience. I found that I really couldn’t do the emotional processing of my cancer while I was in treatment. I sought out a therapist when it was over, and did the work then. So glad you are writing. So glad you are making your way through the chemo valley……the only way out is through. Blessings.

  17. Ellen Gambrell says:

    Dearest Elana: Thank you for this post. I’ve kept my post cancer fog a secret for quite some time. When I asked my endoc to help me remember what I couldn’t, she looked at me like I had two heads. There was just so much info at that time that I couldn’t take it all in. I spoke to my deceased father quite a lot during that time. I’m grateful for your blog and my healing prayers are with you. God bless you.

  18. Christine witt says:

    So many times after I would read your words I would say to myself “she won’t remember this” . My husband just passed his one out of chemo and I will say things remember this or that that had happened and he doesn’t have a clue as to what I’m talking about. The moments of Rhodes days wil live with me forever but for him at that time his mind could not handle it. He like you were in survival mode.
    You are in my thoughts

  19. Your strength is amazing. Thank you for sharing your story.


  21. Thank you so much for understanding what I have been feeling for almost three years now. I have a great oncology group which has their patients work with a therapist during treatments. That helped me a lot during treatments, but afterwards it was like I just woke from a bad dream. Cancer took the confident person I was and made me fearful. To this day I get a little nervous twinge in my stomach when I have to go for my routine check-ups and feel like at any moment she will spring the bad news on me again. I tried to mention this to a friend of mine and she looked at me like I had three eyes. I thought I was alone in feeling this way, but you have made me realize that this is just yet another “side effect” of the cancer experience. I know that someday I will feel confident in my health again, not worry that every little bump or lump is cancer, that a cough could just be a tickle in my throat and that I may not feel good just because I don’t feel good. But for now I will just hold my breath when I need to, close my eyes when I have to and take it one day at a time.

  22. Surag Gohel says:

    Hey Elena,
    You have a great courage to face the truth of your life and I am really impressed with your patience and compassion for sharing your story to help other individuals. Lately I am trying to learn more about Buddhism and I realize how much importance suffering has in our life to achieve utmost happiness by enightment of our thoughts. Your blog is very encouraging and inspiring.

    Your faith in life and appreciation of love define you as a great soul on this earth.

    Get well soon.

  23. Please stay with us in this process. I can’t say I know how bad you feel physically or mentally. I do think you have the strength to make it through. I know I want you to win this fight. I pray for you. I think about you. I am pulling for you. Please fight with all you’ve got. If I can help let me know how.

  24. I don’t know you. You don’t know me. Your blog was discovered by chance. I can only sense that through your blog you seek to provide help and support to others. That’s why people like “us” are in the helping professions. I felt the need to let you know by your open and vulnerable journaling you are helping others process their own journys. It is an amazing gift you have. Thank you for sharing when you are able. It gives at least this reader a moment of pause to say “yup. I did that too” and for a moment articulate what this cancer journey is like.
    Wishing the best your day can give….

  25. Maria Caspary says:

    Dear Alana, what can one say after what you share? THANK YOU for sharing your pain. I believe that we are all in the same boat and this decease is a monster that is behind a corner ready to jump at you and cause so much pain!
    Please know that I don’t know you but I do send you my love. I think about you constantly and hope with all my might that you are getting better. Please concentrate in the positive. I know you lost so much. This horrible monster has taken so much away from you; but you know what? it will never take your essence. You are so beautiful! Your soul is so amazing and smart and educated and honest and giving that obliterates all the darkness around. Please reach deep and fight hard. You can do it. I am sending you all my energy and hope and good wishes. Please hold on tight. Ly

  26. Sending strength and good vibes your way.

  27. You are in my thoughts, Elana…

  28. Elana,

    since the previous post i often thought of you and wondered if you’d find desire and strength to write again. I worried. we don’t know each other, but often in the car i wondered if you were still “too tired, too tired, too tired”

    even just tonight i wondered – and then, not on a Tuesday, i checked your blog and there you were – a wonder – and illuminating as ever!

    my thoughts remain with you – however you feel . . . hoping you find what you need each day.

  29. My prayers are with you. Though we have never met, I can tell you are a strong person. This is what will get you through. Keep fighting and keep praying. Friends you’ve never met are with you.

  30. Elana,
    Wow, I really hear what you are saying about the second wave. Every time I look at this wicked scar on my belly and remember my husband telling me while I was in the recovery room “They found cancer”, It still seems unreal – like a dream that happened eons ago (Even though it was less than four months ago). There is still that scar sitting there reminding me it wasn’t a dream. And I still have a big question mark over my head. What is this? I didn’t order this! What does it mean? I don’t know.

    I nearly broke my nose 4 days after my last chemo when the toilet seat fell on it in my haste to make it to the toilet before I vomited. The toilet seat rebounded because I moved it with so much force. I got a bloody nose that completely freaked out my husband- he actually wrote a song about it

    For me, in spite of the misery of chemo, I am recognizing that this entire process is bringing me home to what I am most passionate about. I probably would have kept doing what I was doing if it had not been for cancer giving me a wake-up call to REALLY look at me and what makes my heart sing. I suspect that you already know what makes your heart sing.

    What you share on your blog is painful and magical at the same time: Wisdom and struggle wrapped up in a thoughtful, honest way that speaks your truth and teaches those who read your blog that it is ok to be honest about how we are feeling and what we are thinking .

    Thank you for being willing to share your journey and thank you for practicing your passion through your blog.

    With much respect,

  31. Kiss!

  32. Thinking of you, Elana. Stay strong.

  33. Love you. You’re awesome! Someday, after you have beat the cancer, you will look back on all of this and it will just be a story. Stay strong!!!

  34. Hi Elana

    Here i am progressing with winning my fear of 2nd wave. MS hes got me ruff in the past year. It is only this week that i have started swimming n running after 2 years. Well running is quite akward..but the water..they hold me like concrete walls. I cant fall in the water n when im out afterwards, i walk so easily. N Im happy n confident with my self for the first time in 7 years since diagnose. I’ll go scubadiving next month after 14 years.

    love is all. You give so much of it. Its the source of healing.
    Wishing you recovery and streangth like you gave me.

  35. Dear Elana,
    I have been following your story ever since I read your “Love is….” article on huffington post and check your blog every other week to see how you’re doing. Strange somehow, isn’t it? How you can feel so involved and deeply touched by the life of a person you have never even met.

    I think the fact that I have seen a hand full of people close to me fighting various forms of cancer and also that my family has experienced so much love from people as my dad was diagnosed with leukemia (he’s fine now!) and I could therefore relate so well to your “Love is…” article are probably the reasons why I constantly come back here, just to make sure that you are on your way to recovery.

    Know, that I’m one of the many people on the sidelines, cheering you on from afar as you struggle through this difficult time in life.
    Know that I believe that you will be able to live a long and happy and healthy life, because you will kick cancers ass.
    Know that you are a very brave and very strong woman and that I – a 20 year old girl – admire and look up to you for that.
    Know that the honesty with which you write these posts is appreciated and one of the most courageous things I have ever read.

    Stay strong, Elana.
    Love from Germany,

  36. Ditto!! To what you and the other survivors are saying. Two years out and it seems unreal, except when the fatigue sets in. I kinda knew when I went back for biopsy results that it was not good news, I do not know how I knew, but from the 1st mammogram letter telling me to come back….I knew. I did take my husband and he told me things later that they said, all I heard was cancer.


  1. […] The stages can occur in any order, you may move back and forth through the different stages, and not everyone will experience every stage.  Elana Miller, MD describes the fluidity perfectly in relation to cancer in her post called The Second Wave. […]

  2. […] you do like Elana Miller of Zen Psychiatry? She is now, as I have been over the past few years, learning to gently meet the pain … to expand […]

  3. […] The stages can occur in any order, you may move back and forth through the different stages, and not everyone will experience every stage.  Elana Miller, MD describes the fluidity perfectly in relation to her own bout with cancer in her post called The Second Wave. […]

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