October 16, 2016
My priest asked me to do the sermon this Sunday. I immediately refused and here I am. She said I should talk about my cancer. I’ve learned a lot in the last 6 years so I’m happy to share some with you this morning.
Immediately after my diagnosis I read a book. I like to read and I like to learn and I needed to learn about cancer. The book is “The Emperor of All Maladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It is a biography of cancer. Yes, a biography. The author thinks of cancer as a living being and now so do I.
In 1924 a self-made Egyptologist bought a papyrus from an antique seller in Luxor Egypt. It was written in the 17th century BC from a transcription from 2500 BC. Translated in 1930 the papyrus contained the collected teachings of Imhotep, a great Egyptian physician who lived around 2625 BC. The papyrus was a list of case histories from patients he had treated. Imhotep wrote about broken bones, and dislocated vertebrae, burns etc. There were 48 cases listed. Describing Case 45 Imhotep advises, “If you examine a case having bulging masses on the breast; if you place your hand on the breast and find them cool, there being no fever, cool, hard, dense as hemat fruit and spreading under the skin”. I agree with Dr. Mukherjee, “there could hardly be a more vivid description of breast cancer.”
Every case on the papyrus had some sort of treatment, milk poured into the ear…balms for burns…for Case 45 under the section titled therapy, Imhotep offered one sentence, “there is none.”
The earliest archeological proof of cancer came when a 4000 year old jawbone was found in southeastern Africa carrying signs of lymphoma. Cancer mostly disappears from history after that. Cancer is an age related disease and most people didn’t live past 30. Men and women were long consumed by tuberculosis, cholera, small pox, plague or pneumonia. Longevity is the most important contributor to cancer. The longer we live the greater the chance to develop cancer. In 1900 the most common cause of death was tuberculosis, cancer was 7th. By 1940 cancer was number two. In that span, life expectancy increased by 26 years giving cancer a chance to be number one.
Right now in the United States, most data shows that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 2.5 men will develop cancer in their lifetime. I will let that sit with you for a minute.
So cancer is a disease caused by the uncontrolled growth of a single cell. This growth is unleashed by the changes in DNA that specifically effect genes and their cell growth. In a normal cell, genes regulate cell division and cell death. In cancer this regulation is broken, creating a cell that cannot stop growing. These cells adapt, repair themselves and live.
Cancer is a bad mother “shut your mouth”!
Listen carefully. When you tell people you have cancer be prepared. That’s why many people don’t say anything. They keep it a secret. This is unfair because the people who love them never have a chance to show them and tell them. Some people think cancer is embarrassing. People will treat you differently once they know, but the ones who you really care about and care about you will not. Cancer is seen as a weakness and some people will look at you as someone to be pitied and avoided. Some will shy away from you. Some will feel vulnerable and frightened.
When I confided this to a friend she said, “Romaine, people are frightened because if you, who eats right, exercises and is in perfect health can get cancer then they don’t have a chance.”
So tell those you love and care about. You know who they are. Later, word will get out and others will find out. Then come the comments.
Because we don’t talk about cancer in general conversation, kind of like race… people will say stupid stuff.
“My brother in law’s sister had metastatic polycystic carcinoma 10 years ago and she’s fine now!”
“Have you had chemotherapy? I love your hair.”
“You’ll be fine! You have such a great attitude!”
“My uncle’s nephew’s wife’s cousin went to a doctor who is doing wonderful things with peach pits and coffee enemas!” You should try to get an appointment!”
My favorite comment was from a friend who asked, “What a terrible thing that is happening to you, are you going to be alright.”? It was the perfect thing to say. It was honest and gave me the chance to say “I really don’t know, but thank you for asking.” No one could say I will be alright…or not! They don’t know. Hell, I don’t know! No one knows, especially doctors…
My oncologist is continually surprised when a treatment goes well. I realized pretty quickly that treatments are like throwing spaghetti at a wall. Sometimes it sticks, sometimes it doesn’t. You had better do your homework about your cancer.
So you get a diagnosis of cancer. First, get a hold of yourself! Like my mom used to say “don’t panic!” Evaluate your situation.
First, how are you doing? Are you in good shape? Lucky for me I happened to spend the last 20 years eating right, exercising and managing my stress for no good reason. I happen to love salads, tofu and bean sprouts. My kids used to say, mommy eats weeds. I only drink water, tea, coffee and wine on the weekends. I spent 6 years at home chasing my children and another 10 teaching preschool and kindergarten and chasing other peoples children. I stay active outdoors, planting and digging and weeding , defending my garden from squirrels. I hate squirrels.
I’ve managed my stress with bubble baths, and am lucky to have a husband who is also a great traveling buddy. I have super immunity from having spent so many years with germy children. No high blood pressure, cholesterol, bunions, asthma. If it wasn’t for cancer I’d probably live to be 100 plus!
Remember if you aren’t in good shape and get cancer, there are a lot of treatments you won’t be able to do, and then your options shrink. You don’t want shrinking options.
I’m an optimist.
“One thing that makes it possible to be an optimist is if you have a contingency plan for when all hell breaks loose.” That’s what Randy Pausch says in his book, “The Last Lecture.” Randy was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who got pancreatic cancer. After he was diagnosed he wrote a book with advice for his young children about how they should live their life. Over the years I’ve told my children lots of things they need to know. Random but important advice like “never put your drink down at a party “ and “ everyone should get married at least once “ and, “be a good person, you’ll live a happier life.” Young people need good advice. Next time you see one, give them some.
When you get cancer you can bet “all hell done broke loose now!” (Isabel Sanford, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). I also enjoy movie trivia!
There is a Japanese proverb that I like:
“Fall seven times, get up eight.”
So get your contingency plan in place. First find the best oncologist for your cancer. Now understand this. Your local oncologist may be well and good but you need an expert on your cancer. Do you fix your own car? No. Do you clean your own teeth? No. You get an expert.
I narrowed my search to doctors who are doing the cutting edge research on my cancer. I can’t afford old treatments that may or may not work. There are 12,000 research papers a month on cancer. You need to find the smartest of the smart. Find the doctors who lecture and present at international conferences of your cancer. Next, apply for a new credit card and put it in a drawer. Your next treatment may be halfway around the world and you will need to move fast.
I called the famous Dr. X. at a prestigious cancer center.
“Forget it!” I was told. “No new patients. No way no how.” “But you can see his colleague Dr. Y.” My hopes dashed, I made an appointment. What do you know? Dr. Y is great! Cutting edge research, treating hundreds of patients a year with my cancer! Caring, experienced, smart and works hard presenting at all the international conferences.
And let me remind you of one more very important thing. Poor people die of cancer at a much, much, higher rate than rich people. Let me repeat that. Poor people die of cancer at a much, much higher rate than rich people. Most of it is lack of good health care. That plastic card in your wallet and the health plan it represents is a good predictor of whether you may live or die. But a lot of it is information and where to get it.
So even if you are not rich, like me, start traveling in those circles. You will learn who the specialists are and where they practice. Start attending the cancer fundraisers and conferences where you can meet and talk to the experts who “won’t take your calls.” Discover the new treatments and the strategies to alleviate chemo and radiation side effects. And guess what… you will feel better!
So, spend your money! Take a car service once in awhile to your appointments. Go to a cosmetic dermatologist for your sore skin.
I like this quote, too….
I go to seek a great perhaps.
Which brings me to the biggest problem with having cancer. You may just die. I know. People die of cancer every day.
It’s inevitable to think about dying if you have cancer. Of course you can’t talk to people about dying because it’s an uncomfortable conversation. It takes a special person not to get all crazy eyed and teary. They are called therapists. You can also go to a spiritual counselor, a priest or minister. Find a good support group. You will find everyone in the room is thinking about death and talking about it, too!
Thoughts about death can consume you. I thought about it every day for the first couple of years after my diagnosis. I became mean and resentful toward my husband. Apparently it’s very common. 30% of married couples dealing with cancer get divorced. I looked it up. I needed to stop focusing on a future that we might not have together. He will probably live a long life, move to the beach, have grandchildren, marry a younger woman with perky breasts….yeah…ok…I’m still working some things out….But, I realize the future we planned together might not happen and I feel sorry for him. So now I try to be very nice.
So if you find yourself spending lots of time thinking about death, I suggest you give yourself 10 minutes a day to think about what will happen when you are dead. Let your mind run free!
Think about your funeral. Who do you think will show up? Will they come because they really feel badly that you’ve died or just to see the house? Who will get your car? What will they do with your nice dresses?
But you are only allowed to think about your death for 10 minutes a day. That’s all. And you know what? After a while you will forget to think about dying. Days will go by and you won’t think of it once. And that’s good.
My latest epiphany came when I was sitting on my porch with Fudgy.
I’d been consumed about not having grandchildren. I am an expert on babies and I deserve grandchildren. Almost all of my friends have grandchildren. If I didn’t have cancer I wouldn’t give it a thought. But like they say, “Time is all you have and you may find one day that you have less than you think.”
Why am I getting so upset about not having grandchildren? I would probably get all overly involved. They take so much time and energy. And just like your own children, you have no control over how they will eventually turn out. I’ve made peace with all my parenting mistakes by understanding that the best you can do is hope they will someday have their own health insurance that will pay for the therapy they’ll need from you having screwed them up. And you know what? I think some people, not all, but some people are blessed with grandchildren for another reason. They might not have had the opportunity to enjoy their own children. They might well have messed up the first time and fate stepped in to give them another chance. Well, the years I’ve spent with my children, I have no regrets. I’ve enjoyed them and they’ve enjoyed me. I don’t need any do overs!
Do have a grand dog that makes me very happy. Her name is Fudgy and she’s the worst dog in the world. She gets into all kind of mischief and never does what she’s told. I love her.
So if you take anything away from today take this,
If you know someone with cancer or any debilitating, awful, or life threatening illness do this…
1. Be nice. Listen to them if they want to talk about their illness. Even if you are uncomfortable, because they are way more uncomfortable than you.
2. Ask them how they are doing. Don’t say… “I am so sorry you have cancer….” and you start to cry! Then they will say.”aw that’s OK.” No it’s not! Don’t put them in a position where they comfort you!
3. Do something for them. Don’t ask first, just do. Nothing extravagant please. Give them a ride, share a book, pick up some dog treats, make them some soup.
4. Bring them a Popsicle. If eating is an issue, (and it’s always an issue when you have cancer) Popsicles are really good. They are especially good after chemo or radiation or just when you’re feeling lousy. Popsicles are the food of love.
If YOU have cancer or any debilitating, awful, painful, terrible or life threatening illness that will not go away do this….
1. Enjoy yourself all the time. Do whatever you want. Do not have any contact with anyone or anything that will keep you from the contented state you want to be in. Repeat that out loud!
2. Spend your money. No one deserves it more. You will be dead and whoever gets it will not use it in any way, shape or form that you will be pleased with. Then give the rest to the church!
3. Surround yourself with love. Those who love you will ease your pain just by loving them back.
She stood in the storm. And when the wind did not blow her away, she adjusted her sail.