Don’t Let Cancer Eat Your Spirit

One of the scariest moments of my life occurred on Christmas Eve of 2003. That was the day the doctor informed me that I had prostate cancer. It didn’t matter that the doctor said, “If you’re going to get cancer, this is the one you want.” All I knew is that the dreaded “C-word” had entered my life.

From the second that the doctor made his pronouncement until my surgery several weeks later, the thought of dying was a constant companion, despite the doc’s reassurance that my condition was not life-threatening. The reason is that cancer not only eats your body; it eats at your mind, exposes your most basic vulnerability, and distracts you from the day-to-day business of living.

Cancer is a disease of which one is never “free.” Once it enters your body, it remains there, at least in your mind. The thought that this uninvited guest might intrude into your life again never leaves you, especially when your doctor requires that you get an annual check-up to monitor your condition.

This is why I have such sympathy for Elizabeth Edwards, wife of the presidential candidate John Edwards, and Tony Snow, the White House press secretary. To be told that your cancer has recurred is not good news for anyone.

But, what should one do when the news is conveyed that “your cancer has returned?” Typically, we cry and feel sorry for ourselves. And, no matter how close we might be to family and friends, there is something about the knowledge of having cancer that you simply can’t muster the words to share. How can you fully put someone who doesn’t have cancer in your shoes so that so that they can understand your fears and worries? You can’t!

On a “60 Minutes” segment, Katie Couric raised the question of whether Elizabeth Edwards might be exploiting her cancer-stricken condition to enhance her husband’s presidential campaign. As I listened to Couric, I wanted to throw something at the television, thinking at that moment that she must not have a clue about the constant fear of death with which Edwards must now be living. When faced with such a prospect, one can be certain that Elizabeth and John Edwards are not engaged in some cheap political trick to garner sympathy and votes. And, I say that as someone who has already decided, based on substantive reasons, that he will not be supporting Edwards’s campaign.

The invaluable lesson that we learn from Elizabeth Edwards is that we should not let cancer kill our resolve to be productive members of society until our toes curl up and the line on the monitor goes completely flat. This lesson applies to other illnesses and diseases as well, but personal experience with cancer gives me a special understanding of the devastating effect that this disease can have on one who has been diagnosed with it.

The challenge is to not let cancer conquer your mind and affect your daily behavior. Whenever I read the statistics about cancer or learn that a 48-year-old friend succumbed to this disease or that a 30-year-old friend has colon cancer, I am reminded of my own condition. For the rest of the day, I unconsciously walk slower, am more preoccupied about my own circumstance, and find myself retreating, somewhat, from life.

It is easier said than done to put our illnesses out of sight and out of mind. As I have written in this column before, our advancing years have a way of aging us before the time is fully ripe for “aging.” Our society gives us constant reminders that we are “getting old.” We thereupon internalize those reminders and, without thinking about it, adjust our behavior to fit the impending condition. More often than I can remember I find myself walking the “old man’s shuffle” – dragging myself along barely putting one foot after the other. Then, I ask, “Why the hell I am walking this way?” I feel healthy and vibrant. Yet, I am walking like a 67-year-old man is expected to walk. When those thoughts enter my head, I put more spring in my step, move my arms as I walk, put a smile on my face and think of my younger days.