I just wanted to give everyone another quick update on my fight with cancer. Things have been going fairly well so far, although I’m starting to feel more of the cumulative effects of chemo. This past week was somewhat of a milestone for me – I’m officially halfway through my treatments! Within the next few weeks I’m scheduled for a PET scan where they will be able to tell just how much my tumor has shrunk. Our fingers are crossed for some good news!
Aside from the actual treatments themselves, I can tell you this – in the days of post-recovery after chemo, you get a lot of time to think and reflect on what’s going on.
I’ve determined that having cancer is like being a part of a club or group you were never asked to join and didn’t really want to ever be a part of. But now you are, and that’s just what you have to deal with.
In some ways that’s not all bad. Like brothers of war, I’m finding it amazing how complete strangers are willing to instantly bond with you over this ordeal. Usually this is because they had a personal experience with it themselves (either personally or with someone they cared about).
For other people it’s as if you’re wearing the Scarlet Letter, and you can tell that your very presence makes them uneasy. Strangers and even people you know will physically see that you look different with your bald head, and will seem to avoid you at all costs.
One notable story I can share is when I recently ran into a former colleague of mine. We hadn’t talked in a few months, and when he first saw me he noticed my appearance was different. He asked me how everything was going and I quickly filled him in on the fact that was undergoing chemotherapy treatments. Almost instantly I could tell he became squeamish, and so he cut the conversation very short and bolted as quickly as he could to re-join the group of people he was with.
I didn’t really understand what was going on or why people were acting this way until I started reading this book about cancer called “From This Moment On” by Arlene Cotter. To paraphrase one of the pages from the text:
When people see you with cancer, it may make them uneasy because it reminds them of their own mortality. It reminds them that they are going to die someday.
That makes perfect sense. I’m sure no one really ever questions their mortality. No one wakes up thinking today is the day I’m going to be hit by a car or the victim of some horrible disease. Of course not! We push those kinds of thoughts aside and focus on the things that are right there in front of us.
That is … until someone with that horrible disease IS right there in front of us. Then you’ve got a walking, talking reminder that these kinds of things aren’t nearly as far-fetched as you thought.
For some people I can see how this situation would make them question their sense of power and control. And they don’t like that. These kinds of people need to feel like they are on top and invincible. They don’t like to be reminded they too are made of glass and could be broken just as easily at any time.
Now if you think I’m picking on anyone, here’s the ironic part – I’m probably the person who’s the most guilty of all of this behavior.
I surprised myself when I read that passage from the book because throughout this whole experience I think THAT WAS the first time I had ever considered the possibility that I COULD die.
It’s funny how even though you’re living through these experiences they still don’t seem to sink in. The first night I was in the hospital when we had discovered the tumor, it took me several days to accept that the tumor REALLY WAS cancer.
As I began chemo, it took me several treatments to actually accept that my body would weaken, that my energy would decrease, and that the next 6 months would be “a fight”.
Now I was considering horrible outcomes I had never previously even thought:
- What if the tumor doesn’t shrink?
- What if, unbeknownst to me, it spreads to more places throughout my body?
- What if I end up needing even MORE chemo?
- What if the treatments aren’t working?
- What if the next few months are all I have left to look forward to?
Now don’t get too excited. This is just me thinking out-loud. The reality of all this is my prognosis looks very, very good! People with Hodgkin’s lymphoma have a survival rate of 90 to 95%.
But even still … cancer is cancer. Cancer is scary. It can lie dormant for years and then suddenly sprout up one day during some routine checkup. There doesn’t have to necessarily be any warning signs or triggers to activate it. It just does. It just happens.
Questioning your own mortality really puts things within your life into an interesting line-up. You don’t really think about all the “stuff” you never had. “Stuff” suddenly has no meaning.
All those small fights you have with your spouse suddenly seem silly. All the excuses you use to ignore your kids seem totally unfounded. All the politics and drama at work becomes just plain stupid.
Good prognosis or not, you quickly realize your one and only priority was time and what you choose to do with it. Losing three to five days to chemo recovery really makes you cherish the 9 to 11 other days you actually feel half-way good and energized. More than ever that just really makes you want to go out and do things that actually matter.
Those things don’t even have to be all that huge. No sky-diving or Safari trips through Africa. Things as simple as enjoying an evening talking with my wife or a trip to the movies with my kids suddenly seem more important than ever. The actual activity is not as important as the fact that I’m just being with them, and we’re enjoying each other’s company.
I didn’t sign-up to be the face of death for some people, and I refuse to play that part. So lately when I’m out in public I’ve been playing this little game. The way it works is simple: I’ll just randomly give someone a warm smile. NOT a creepy, stalker, call-the-cops smile – just a quick, friendly one. Enough to let them know I see them. This can be to an old woman, a child, or even another adult.
In our age where everyone seems to walk around with their face glued to an iPhone screen and ear-buds in their ears to shut every one out, I think we could all use a free smile here and there. And when you see it come from my face, you’ll know that I am not what death looks like. I’m what perseverance can be.
Featured image courtesy of JakeMcMillan | WordPress