Yes, I am still here!
I need your love, your prayers, and your encouragement, but please don't bury me before my time. Don't medicalize me or make me prove to you that I am doing well. For I'm here just as you are, and we both have some important living to do. That pretty much sums up how I struggled through my bout with a nasty cancer five years ago. I'm not going to say it was easy, and as a physician I often knew too much. But I always focused on the bright side of any statistic that was dished out to me. And I have learned firsthand something my patients taught me years before--that overcoming or learning to live with a major illness is just one more life-affirming demand in the course of our existence on this Earth.
Almost 40 percent of us will get cancer, an illness of many colors in which perceptions have not always kept up with reality. To be sure, cancer is the one medical diagnosis that always brings shivers and a gut-wrenching sense that your time is up: "So this is how I die." Whether or not you have peered across the River Styx, the facts are that today you are vastly more likely to survive than not, and very well, thank you--joining the legion of some 10 million people in this country called cancer survivors.
The field of cancer medicine is nothing short of breathtaking. After decades of major research investment in the war on cancer, we are now seeing more tailored treatment plans emerge from the clinics and whole new classes of cancer-fighting drugs pour out of pharmaceutical houses. These are drugs like Herceptin and Gleevec that show we can target cancers with laserlike precision based on molecular or genetic type. And with earlier detection and more successful treatment, quality of life--not just its quantity--is getting better.
Here we can learn from the younger generations and the great successes we have seen with their remarkable recoveries from childhood cancers. I recall one of my daughters bringing a college friend home, and this young woman noticed that we had Neupogen in our refrigerator. That's the medicine that builds up your white cells when you're in the depths of bone marrow suppression from cancer treatment. Bubbling with life and enthusiasm, she proudly told me of her own self-injections with the drug years before and her magnificent recovery from Hodgkin's disease. Indeed, if you ever want to be inspired, touch a young person who has scaled this mighty mountain.
Blackberry winter. But sometimes people are afraid to extend a hand to others who have borne this illness. One oncologist who had her own bout with cancer told me that the scarlet C can be a stigma socially and in the workplace. It can place you in a lesser category of being, one that discounts your value and isolates you to a class defined by illness, not wellness. If that thinking is lurking out there, as it may well be, I can say only that it calls for radical excision. Cancer may be scary, but it's not catching.