Chapter 17: Dear Fellow Cancer Survivor

Chapter 17: Dear Fellow Cancer Survivor

This book does not have a very satisfying ending I admit. We seek some finality with cancer, but it will yield none. Was I cured? So far. Is it terminal? There is really only one way my journey ends: I die. It may be in a year, or 40 years, but only at that point will we know if it was from cancer or some other cause (“You can be hit be a bus tomorrow” as my dad would say).  Remember we all have a terminal diagnosis; it just doesn’t come with any specifics.

Here is the only advice I feel qualified to give you, the only lesson I feel confident in: use cancer. I don’t mean use it as an excuse to get out of obligations or things you don’t want to do. I don’t mean to use it like in some idealized country song to skydive and bull ride.

I mean use cancer as an excuse to talk to your fourteen year old about his life and get on the floor to build Legos with your eleven year old. As a dear friend from my childhood once asked as we were sharing stories of new fatherhood: when did we forget how to just play. Use cancer to learn how to simply play again.

Use cancer to have a date night with your wife even if it is cuddled up in a hospital bed watching basketball and Netflix. Use cancer to sit holding her on the couch instead of staying in the big comfy chair. Use cancer to remind yourself she needs to hear you laugh as well as know why you sigh. Find a song that makes you both cry together.

Use cancer to talk to your mother about God, and your dead father, and her fears and dreams. Realize how scared and angry and helpless and even guilty you would feel if it was your child with lymphoma and realize that is how she is feeling. Use cancer to be a better son.

Use cancer to learn. Learn how your body works and find that brother-in-law that can explain lymphocytes, platelets, and the reason you are losing your hair. And, if he does it while sending you pictures of naked mole rats and asks for pictures of your bruised ass to show to his freshmen biology class at the same time, you are truly blessed.

Use cancer to teach. Use it as a way to make people aware of warning signs, yes. But use cancer to teach a friend or colleague how to talk openly about a disease, what questions can’t be answered, what questions are too painful to answer. Teach doctors that patients are more than conditions to treat and that diagnoses are much less painful than uncertainty.

Use cancer to see the best in people. See how nurses can do their job, teach, and comfort at the same time. Use cancer to take the time to realize that as the doctor thrusts a steel pin in your hip for a bone marrow biopsy the nurse not only hands the doctor the right needle, but reaches out to hold your hand.

Use cancer to see that you are not alone. That the network of friends and colleagues and family suddenly go from an invisible web to a team that feeds you, comforts you, sits with you in the hospital at 5 am after a double shift, and loves you. See it in the parking attendant who for years you waved at and said goodnight to, and who one day stops you to ask if you are ok and upon the news of your cancer tells you he’ll be praying for you.

Use cancer to realize that if it is your children, or your work, or that network of family and friends, you will someday leave a legacy. A legacy that can only be built by your actions and decisions. Use cancer to hone that legacy, and work toward what you will leave behind.

I have seen all the cancer slogans, and love them all. “Kick cancer’s ass.” “Beat cancer.” “Cancer fears me.” I’ve been told that even at the beginning of this journey I am a “cancer survivor.” For me that one seems premature. But I am not a cancer victim. Yes I could die from this or some random virus I get, but that won’t be my legacy. Dying from cancer will not be my decision, nor will I learn to die. I will not use cancer to give up. Dying from cancer will not make me noble, any more than a freak mutation of DNA makes me any wiser – unless I use cancer to become so.