Note: Three years ago I, then a twenty-three year cancer survivor, wrote this piece about the valiant decision of Elizabeth Edwards to go on with her life after learning that she had incurable breast cancer. In those years, she showed us a special grace and a gritty determination in every aspect of her life.
By last count, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 10 million cancer survivors. That's up an astonishing 66% percent in just ten years. I am one of them; next month I will celebrate twenty-three years cancer free -- cured -- of my testicular cancer. Like Elizabeth Edwards and the other members of the so-called "cancer survivors club," I, too, had to face the highly personal decision as to whether or not to continue working as I endured numerous two surgeries and weekly chemotherapy treatments.
Before I tell you what I chose to do, let me purposely digress: Two years after my treatment ended I became a volunteer at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where I had been sliced and diced for more than eight hours on the operating table, with a disappointing outcome: more than a dozen "positive" (cancerous) lymph nodes in my abdomen. "Memorial", as its graduates like to call it, has a special cadre of volunteers in its "patient to patient" program. What's special? Each volunteer has been treated for one cancer or another and is specifically matched with a newly diagnosed patient with that same kind of cancer.
We're taught a lot of different things in the volunteer training, but none more important than this: Do not judge others. And do not think that your experience with the disease is universal -- or, in fact, is anything that just yours. Often that was easier said than done. Sometimes, I would visit patients and be appalled at some of their decisions. For instance, I recall a patient whose doctors highly recommended a clinical trial for her disease, one then only available at Memorial; she chose to return to a regional hospital because it would be easier for her family to take care of her. I would have chosen otherwise; her doctors pleaded with her to do otherwise. But my role was to listen, knowing that her values, needs and wants were -- by definition -- different than mine or anyone else's.
Ironically, when I first heard that Elizabeth Edwards had asked her husband to continue with his campaign and that she would continue to do so, too, in my heart I judged her. Even though I had continued with my life as close to "the plan" as I could when I fell ill, silently I said to myself: "What about her young children?" "What about her needs?" For several moments, I felt I knew better what Elizabeth Edwards should do than she, herself.
Clearly, many of us do. Just pick up any newspaper or read any news web site since their announcement here in Chapel Hill and you can follow the heated debate: should they or shouldn't they have continued the campaign. Is it courage, folly, principle, or blind ambition? According to a New York Times story, most cancer survivors agree that Elizabeth and John Edwards should go forward with the campaign, with their lives as planned. Others are not so sure. To be honest, it took me a couple of days to switch gears and to stop judging Mrs. Edwards and her decision. I recalled our training at Memorial: do not judge and do not universalize your experience. It's an important life lesson overall, but none more so than in this instance.
Yes, I chose to work throughout my illness. And I was fairly successful in showing up week after week. But not always. Sometimes I threw up (chemotherapy-related nausea) and once passed out (a bad drug interaction). We make our decisions and live with them the best we can. Sometimes they stick; sometimes they don't.
Steven Petrow lives in Chapel Hill and originally wrote this op-edit for the Raleigh News & Observer.