No matter who you are, and no matter what you've heard or read, if your doctor should say "You've got cancer," I'm pretty sure you're going to think, as I did, "I'm going to die."
Convinced that my life would soon be over, I tortured myself unnecessarily for months when diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. I grieved for all I would miss and all of the happily-anticipated plans that would never happen. Every time I saw someone I loved I would be sure it was one of the last times we would be together, and I would be overcome with sadness as soon as we parted.
Now, 12 years later, I'm still here.
For the last year I have worked as a volunteer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, talking with patients newly diagnosed with lymphoma who have come for their first appointment with my oncologist, Dr. Carol Portlock. I can spot them as they enter her waiting room, for they all have the same look of dread. I introduce myself, show them my volunteer ID and tell them that I, too, am her patient and have been for 12 years.
Immediately, the look is replaced by one of interest. They repeat 12 years to make sure they've heard me correctly. They tell me I look well, that I must be in remission, cured? I say, no, not remission, not cured. I have cancer and I am well. They are amazed. How can you have cancer and be well? Full of questions, we talk until they are called in for their appointments. They are still apprehensive, of course, but now it has occurred to them that just maybe they can live with this disease.
During the last 15 years, due to remarkable advances in cancer treatment, some formerly-lethal cancers can now go into remission or, like mine, can become chronic, and life post-treatment can continue much as it did prior to diagnosis. Thus, having cancer can become a non-issue in everyday life.
I feel strongly that we need to publicize this important, relatively new information. Yes, I know there are patients in cancer ads saying that they've licked cancer, but these ads, though good, don't tell the whole story. They imply that either you're cured or you die. And that's simply not true for some cancers.
Instead, think of the ad campaign for milk: attractive people with a milk mustache. Or, "What Becomes a Legend Most" from the mink lobby -- a series of ads that grab the viewer's attention with a visual that presents the message with minimal copy. For example: In one, perhaps a healthy-looking man in the bleachers at a little league game, lustily cheering on his son or daughter, with a bubble over his head stating "I've got cancer." Ads that show people living their lives in ordinary and even extraordinary ways, each with the tag "I've got cancer."
It's not easy for patients (or their loved ones) to cope with a diagnosis of cancer. The statement is like a punch in the gut -- it takes your breath away. It diminishes your sense of self, your illusion of some sort of control over your future. But if that first reaction is tempered with the knowledge that you don't have to beat cancer in order to have a full life, then it becomes bad news that's somehow easier to take.
Thanks for reading my blog, and if the message has any meaning for you or someone you know, please pass it on.
For more on personal health, click here.