Monday, May 7, 2007
Loved Ones Recall Local Man's Cowardly Battle With Cancer
Did you laugh out loud when you read this headline from the satirical newspaper, The Onion? I did.
Why is it that the use of the words "cowardly" and "cancer" in the same sentence tickles our funny bones? Comedy critics would tell us that it's the surprise factor or incongruous pairing that produces the chuckles. We expect cancer battlers to be strong and courageous, not weak and cowardly.
All of this has inspired me to think about why most of us naturally ascribe these adjectives, strong and courageous, to those battling cancer. Over the decades, I've known many friends and acquaintances (several of whom have died from the disease) who battled cancer. Each did it in his or her own way, but in every case I would describe the person and their battle as strong and courageous.
And, yet, most of us who are currently in the trenches feel uncomfortable with these descriptors. Jonathan Alter, in his Newsweek cover story about his battle with mantle cell lymphoma, described it this way. “Friends later said I handled it courageously, but they were wrong. American culture rewards cheerful stoicism, a quality that cancer patients usually display in public but find difficult to sustain in private.”
I often think of Alter's words when I find myself crushed with emotions that are contrary to the "cheerful stoicism" I usually display and genuinely feel. After my last release from the City of Hope, I was required to report back on the following day at 8:30 am. I was exhausted. I was dealing with the loss of my hair. My body was covered with unhealed sores, a cheetah-like rash and bruises. My lower legs looked like they were decorated in dots with a red, fine-point Sharpie. (I later learned that this is a hallmark of a low blood platelet count.) I was hideous. As I burst into tears while walking from the parking lot to the hospital, I thought, "I'm NOT strong and courageous. I'm weak and cowardly."
The truth is that I was a person in need of support, a hug, encouraging words, and I got all of those things as soon as I walked through the doors of Hope. And I got it later when I talked with friends who had experienced a similar ride on the cancer coaster.
One definition of "courageous" is "consciously rising to a specific test by drawing on a reserve of inner strength." I like this definition because the implication is that the corageous person doesn't know the reserve existed prior to the "test." When I admire someone else for being "strong and courageous," my unspoken questions are always, "Could I rise to the occasion if the same thing happened to me?" and "Do I have the necessary reserve of inner strength?"
I find myself asking these questions a lot these days. Whenever I see a mom with a young child with leukemia. After I chat with patients whose primary residences are out of state and they are taking up temporary residence in So. Cal. while undergoing treatment at CoH. When I make contact with someone who has undergone more than one bone marrow or stem cell transplant. When I talk with someone whose disease has come back after being in remission.
I ask myself these questions every time I think of my friend Wayne, a 65-year-old college math professor, who biked daily from Altadena to LA. After a freak cycling accident in February, he is a quadriplegic. This formerly physical and mental athlete is just now beginning to regain feeling and movement in the tips of his fingers. When I spoke with him two weeks ago, he, like Christopher Reeve, was quick to point out, "I'm still Wayne."
There's no doubt that Wayne epitomizes strength and courage. Could I be as courageous under the same circumstances?
Wayne’s life changed dramatically from one moment to the next with no time to mentally or physically prepare. Mine, on the other hand, has been a gradual adjustment. When my ocular surgeon told me that the tumor on my eye was mantle cell lymphoma, he added that I would most likely be treated with radiation therapy. I thought, "I can deal with radiation, but I don't think I can handle chemo." The next thing I knew, my hematologist told me that I would be undergoing chemo and I thought, "Once every three weeks. That's not so bad. I can handle that." In the end, doctors told me, "You must undergo a high-dosage treatment as an in-patient and you will have a stem cell transplant when it's all over."
By the time I heard these words, I was ready to digest them. If I had heard them right after the initial diagnosis, I doubt that I would have been able to "consciously tap into reserves of strength" as quickly.
When we were going through our turbulent years with Cindy, I was active on a listserve for parents whose children attended the same group of "emotional growth" boarding schools. Parents sometimes posted chilling stories about children who ran away from the programs, which were typically located in rural or mountainous areas. At the time, I thought, "I don't think I have the strength to handle it if Cindy ran away." Two years later, she did just that from a program in Utah. And, of course, I did handle it; I had no choice. It was an excruciatingly difficult time, but we all got through that and other crises, thanks in no small part to others who had been on or were traveling similar journeys.
I find myself wondering the same thing about cancer returning after being in remission - that dangling sword of Damocles that threatens every cancer patient and survivor. Naturally, I believe it when I tell myself that I'm gonna' kick this MCL to the ground so that it never comes back up again. But after Elizabeth Edwards' cancer returned, I heard a commentator state that our society puts tremendous pressure on cancer survivors to do just that. The reality is that cancer sometimes returns, regardless of the treatments and the attitude of the patient.
In spite of my fears, I know deep down inside that I will deal with what I have to deal with when I have to deal with it, with the help of my family and friends. Sometimes I think the most courageous thing we can do is to admit that we have no (or a limited supply of) inner strength and seek out others, both professionally and personally, who can help us through these "tests."
And that, my friends, is no laughing matter.