Cancer is just a word. Cancer doesn’t equal death. Cancer grows, and mutates. Cancer is bombarded with chemicals and radiation. Cancer is caused by chemicals and radiation. Cancer is a cliché at the same time it reaps over a half million American lives each year.
As I edge into my fifties, I find that transition accompanied by grim news from friends as first one than another walks out of their doctor’s office with "cancer" ringing in their ears and their lives suddenly redefined: breast cancer, ovarian cancer, lymphoma.
One after another, people in the prime of life and accomplishment now have those lives reduced to the million little responsibilities of cancer. Tumor boards and insurance rules, chemo, radiation, operations, stages, hopefulness and hopelessness mingle with tears and bargaining and the endless cancer conversations they must have with parents, kids, co-workers, friends and loved ones.
It exhausts me just thinking about it and I’m not bearing a cellular structure gone horribly awry (that I know). One heroic mom keeps teaching in her child’s school even as she undergoes a chemotherapy regimen. Another goes for a second opinion, hoping that cancer is just talk, not a tell-tale spot on a CAT scan. Still a third talks about having an entertaining and amusing death, gathering friends about and making art and laughing until the bittersweet end.
I try to buck up and spread the cancer clichés I know by heart:
"We live in a golden age of medicine."
"Cancer’s not the death sentence it used to be."
"A positive outlook can make all the difference."
But seldom have I felt more ill-prepared to provide comfort. It’s true that more people survive the disease than ever before, that high profile public information initiatives and advanced treatment and diagnostics mean those who watch their health diligently and closely can beat cancer before it even gets a mutated foothold.
But if you’re like me, if you just weather your aches and pains and view staying away from the doctor a good thing, cancer lurks, disguised as a scratchy cough or a backache that won't go away. Or in the case of one friend going through ovarian cancer, it can lurk without symptoms at all such that by the time your body springs a leak the prognosis has more to do with estate planning than cure-scenarios.
One stricken parent takes heart that their kids are grown while another works on how to explain life expectancy to small children. Others beat themselves up over whether they missed something obvious before it got this far. Those of us at a safe distance from the creeping horror in our friends’ bodies and families find ourselves wondering if it is in the air, the water, the radiation coming from the sun or the radiation coming from the smartphone in our ear. But it doesn’t really matter where it came from. Now the task is to beat it or die trying.
Other people’s cancer smacks us in the face with the fact that we’ve all got to go some day, in spite of the best laid efforts of pharmaceutical and healthcare advertising to convince us otherwise. So friends and loved ones struggle with cancer (the disease), while the rest of us struggle with cancer (the word, the concept). As is my nature I imagine all of the worst-case outcomes, hoping I will be wrong.
If you are living with cancer or have a friend or loved one who is living with it and having success with their battle and living good years you once thought impossible, I’d love to hear about it. Right now I could use some good news about cancer.