Source: The foundation
The gift of Cancer…our journey
Source: The foundation
When word about my Cancer diagnosis spread out, the response was heartwarming. To know I am loved, valued and supported by so many people is truly overwhelming at times. It’s so easy to get caught up in life and my small corner of the world and ignore or underestimate the impact I have made on people’s lives. It’s easy to forget that every interaction you have with people, even strangers, has some sort of impact. What you take away from that interaction could be totally different from what they take from it.
Growing up on a farm in Vermont, my brother Tim and I often played in the woods and built many forts. We had some younger friends about a mile or two down the road that would join us from time to time. As the years passed and we all went our separate ways becoming young men and finding our paths, a chance meeting at a convenience store had us reminiscing about the ‘fort building’ days. Here I stood with this 20 something year old young man with a huge grin on his face talking about a time when he was in his single digits getting dirty playing in the woods with hatchets! Honestly, among all the things that had transpired in my life in that same time frame, the memory was deeply buried, but he pulled it to the surface with pride as one of his fondest childhood memories. I could almost smell the pine and feel the sap that we would ultimately go home and work feverishly to scrub from our skin along with many layers of happy dirt. Indeed those were good times I was glad to hear they had meant so much to him. I had no idea at the time the impact childhood playtime would have on our lives.
This young man and his brother were among the first to contact me when my diagnosis went public. Despite living in other parts of the country, through the power of social media we were instantly connected and again, my heart was warmed by their acknowledgment and love. In contrast to that, I have noticed others even closer to me that have yet to acknowledge my diagnosis. I know they care and are holding me up in prayer, yet it seems to fall short. I question my need for this acknowledgment and try to brush it aside. Am I being selfish? Shouldn’t it be enough to know they are supporting me in prayer? After all, isn’t that what’s most important?
After much thought and debate with myself on this subject I have come to realize the importance of acknowledgment. I also have noticed my past lack of acknowledgment for others! When my wife and I disagree, she is usually pretty quick to acknowledge my feelings or point of view. Even if she doesn’t feel the same way, she gives me the power of acknowledging me. I feel that this is a key ingredient in keeping a disagreement from becoming an argument. When you acknowledge someone, they feel it. Doesn’t mean you agree with them, but it goes a long way in keeping the disagreement civil.
When you bust your butt at work, even if you love what you are doing, you want acknowledgment weather you admit it or not. It feels really good that the boss, supervisor or coworker takes notice. Acknowledgment is affirmation and we need that. Just like your dog needs that pat on the head and ‘good dog’ phrase of acknowledgment.
Reflecting on my past, I know I have denied many people acknowledgment and, knowing what I now know, I regret that. I would run into someone I know that had lost a friend or family member and I was too afraid to give them condolences for fear that it might remind them (like they could forget) and tear the scab off the wound. Yes, it may sting a bit, but my acknowledgment and affirmation would outweigh that and I doubt they would walk away thinking I was a jerk for it. Instead I earned the Jerk badge! They probably walked away thinking ‘Geeze! I can’t believe he didn’t say anything! What a jerk!’
I know I have Cancer. I know it could cost me my life. There is nothing anyone can say that I haven’t already thought about a million times. The ‘old me’ couldn’t get past the awkwardness of what to say to someone hurting. “I’m sorry” may seem to fall short but in reality, there’s no ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ thing to say. In fact, It’s not about what to say at all! It’s about acknowledgment. I need acknowledgment. Call me selfish if you don’t agree, but when someone talks to me and acknowledges my situation it gives me great comfort and comfort is what Cancer Patients need, not avoidance (which tends to be received as not caring) Cancer is scary and terrifying. I will never withhold acknowledgment from anyone again!
I thought that the initial shock of being told I have cancer was going to be the one and only high hurdle I would need to clear and come to terms of acceptance with. I was wrong. There have been different (and many) levels of acceptance. Just when I felt I was fully accepting of the fact that I had this disease growing in me, the next doctor appointment would have me reeling all over again! The Doctor that first diagnosed me, told me I was barely in stage 2 and had a lot of time before I would need to treat it. “Monitor my levels” was all I was expecting to need to do for the time being. A second opinion about a month later at the more advanced James Cancer center at OSU put me at stage 4! Both Doctors were looking at the SAME blood work and bone marrow biopsy! How could 2 Oncologists look at the same numbers and come up with drastically different diagnosis? Another hurdle; another ‘bomb shell’ to swallow. Now I was facing treatment in a matter of months rather than years.
It’s kind of like owning a BMW and something goes wrong. Sure, you could take it to the local mechanic. He could tinker with it and maybe get it working pretty well with parts that fit ‘pretty good’ and for a reasonable price. If you took it to the BMW dealer however, they would have the tools and training to properly diagnose the mechanical issue and the exact parts to fix it. The same holds true for your body! Unfortunately we don’t always have the luxury of choosing or going to the best doctors and hospitals due to the mess that is our health insurance system…but that’s another topic for a later discussion.
Breaking the news to family and friends about this ‘new development’ was yet another hurdle. To acknowledge something, makes it real. To talk about it and face it made it real. Something as dark and nasty as Cancer is hard to accept and nothing I ever wanted to be real. My brother had Leukemia, not me! I knew the battle from watching his battle. I saw his physical battles as he became a human pincushion, getting stuck with needles to have blood drawn for endless testing. Now I would become that pincushion? Steve didn’t talk a lot about his inner personal struggles. I knew he had them but I had no idea just how many nor how deeply they ran. Steve was a brave man and I deeply admired how he always put on a brave face in public and never wore it on his sleeve. My goal is to be a Positive example of someone living with Cancer much like he was! After all, I have an amazing, supportive loving wife and I am going to the best possible cancer facility available!
Although this can seem like a huge mountain to climb, I choose to focus on one step at a time and revel at how far I’ve come, not how far I have yet to climb. I will focus on the beautiful surroundings and spectacular view from the summit and not the possibility of a slip and fall. A positive perspective is just as much a key ingredient in my treatment plan as the drugs I am prescribed.
Countless times every day we are all faced with the choice to be negative or positive. Stuff happens that sometimes gets under our skin or sets us back. Our knee jerk reactions are rarely the best response. Next time, try doing something opposite of what you first feel the need to do. Often times, this little shake up can open you up to a domino effect of a change of heart or behavior in critical situations. I call this ‘God’s little test’ for us. “What would Jesus do”? Love. Put simply, do all things with love. The universe gives back what we send out. Send out love, receive love. Send out hate or negative statements, get the same in return. It’s your choice!
Faith, you’ve gotta have it. You’ve got to believe in something. God, the universe, energy, people, the process, fate. You can’t get through life, let alone cancer without it. Faith is one of those hot topic issues. Faith is the opposite of fear… you can’t totally have one if you hold on to the other. This journey involves stripping away all the layers like an onion. It’s personal for each of us. A few weeks ago I was holding on to the wheel instead of letting go. This is such a raw human experience. As faithful as I am, the fear crept in so strong through that cracked door. Cancer does that… life can too. When faced with life or death decisions choosing to be immobile because of fear is also a choice. It doesn’t mean faith is lost at all, sometimes the path just becomes a bit overgrown… but you know it is still there. Faith has so many facets, but the bottom line is trust. Trust your journey… Faith is believing in something that you can not see, sometimes you can not even visualize… but you just know in your heart. Sometimes it’s hard to find the words to describe… it’s just a knowing. Faith in the spiritual sense is knowing that whatever happens in your life, you must trust that it is what will serve you., grow you, refine who you are as a person. There are so many questions that I have about that… but I know that at some point the gift is revealed in the process. We are all here learning lessons in this life. Sometimes there is no answer… it is what it is.
My faith has always been deep… it’s been tested but not lost. These past few years have been full of the best and worst but through it all my faith has kept me going. Life doesn’t always run smooth, we wouldn’t appreciate it if everything was always perfect. When things are difficult, hold on to your faith… without it you are in a stormy sea without a life vest. Once in awhile faith can be tested. Most people I know have been in this dark place at least once in their life. Life throws curveballs.. like cancer, or people that hurt us, but for every event or person that hurts us there are more that enlighten us and help restore our faith. Sometimes putting your faith in someone else is scary, like doctors!!!! After meeting several doctors, Peter and I just knew that his doctor at the cancer center was the one. We have faith in him and his knowledge.. we trust in him to do his absolute best. Sure, he gets a paycheck… but you feel from him that it’s really all about healing and curing his patients. We didn’t always feel that faith & trust in doctors. The path felt very overgrown indeed. Peter’s primary care doctor did full blood work on him in 2008,2010 & 2012… all she told him was that his cholesterol was a bit high. It wasn’t until after we got married and invested in a good insurance policy that we both decided to be responsible adults and get checkups. His doctor didn’t see the cancer this time either, but thankfully her PA did. Imagine Peters surprise when the hematologist he saw in June told him that his numbers were off and had progressively been getting worse with each full blood workup he had gotten since 2008. When he ultimately made an appointment to talk to his primary doctor about this, we both felt she still didn’t know when she walked in the room. She had all of his medical information in her hands but never looked at it. We knew that as soon as Peter asked her to look at his blood work from 2008 and she said “what am I looking at?”, and again in 2010… She got it then… “I’m sorry, I missed this, I didn’t see it”. Clearly, she missed it. She made an assumption that he was young and healthy and didn’t look further. That is how faith in a particular doctor is lost. Does this mean all doctors are negligent… absolutely not. Faith is knowing that there are great ones out there, you just need to research and ask questions. Now on a deeper level, does this mean we lose faith in all things when life throws us a curve? If you’ve loved and been hurt do you give up on love or do you have faith that love is there waiting for you? If you’ve wished for something that doesn’t happen does that mean that you give up wishing and dreaming? No, you push on, knowing that by faith your path will open up. Does that mean that when illness or tragedy befalls us that we throw faith out?? Isn’t that like throwing out the baby with the bath water. Just because life doesn’t hand us exactly what we want when we want it doesn’t mean that there is no God or that all hope is lost. The Universe isn’t against you….life is just a test of faith… one only needs to reach out and hold on.. to faith.
Life is a complicated puzzle that we never fully understand until the pieces start fitting together. We know what we know when we know it and there are always more pieces to find their place within the grand scheme. As I analyze my brothers 20 year off and on battle with cancer, I realize now how I learned so much about how to deal with this deadly disease mentally and spiritually. I see now that these are the very building blocks of the foundation on which I now stand and face my journey through cancer. The mortar that holds these blocks together has come from my amazing wife who has taught me so much about just how strong I am.
In the last few days of my brothers life, I’ll never forget how she held me up (sometimes physically when I was nearly crippled with grief) She was and is my warrior! Her steady words of comfort and physical touch kept me from doing what I so desperately wanted to do: run. I didn’t want a front row seat to watch my brother die. I wanted to leave the hospital and just…run. It was only because of her comfort and steadfast belief in me and my inner strength that I did stay. I got to say good bye and kiss him on the head one last time.
I see now how she is the mortar that holds the blocks together. The timing of her entrance into my life was perfect. Our paths crossed so many times over the years and we often reflect on how amazing it was that we never connected years ago. We know now exactly why we didn’t. It was all in God’s time. We both had much to learn and experience before we would be ready for one another.
Had one piece of the puzzle changed, the finished picture would be different. When I was finally diagnosed, I had actually been carrying the disease for 7 years! Blood work from 2008, 10 and 12 all show the disease growing in my bloodstream. It wasn’t until routine blood work in 2015 that it was finally noticed. I wasn’t symptomatic. Had I received this diagnosis back in 2008, 10 or 12, I doubt I would’ve ever met or brought Heather into this. I was a mess mentally and spiritually in that time frame. To knowingly bring someone into my battle would (to me) be careless, thoughtless and selfish. I would always be wondering if she was with me just because I was sick and be in doubt of her true love for me. Had I been diagnosed at a time when I was not secure in my faith and who I was, I probably would have considered letting the disease run its course.
More on that later….