Everyone Knows Someone

(If you’ve been reading my blog recently, you know why this issue is ever-present in my mind.)

I read this comment the other day: “Everyone knows someone who has had cancer.” Someone? As in one? Off the top of my head, I can name ninety people I’ve known personally who have had a cancer diagnosis. Ninety! Not ninety people I’ve heard of. Not celebrities or friends of friends. Ninety people whose hands have touched mine. People I love—family and friends, work colleagues, teachers, childhood play pals or schoolmates, and a few more distant acquaintances.

If I try making a list tomorrow, it will be different. I’ll remember new folks and inadvertently overlook some on today’s list. But today’s list looks like this: breast, 34 (!); prostate, 11; blood, 5; brain, 5; colon, 4; lung, 4, skin, 4; tongue, 2; cervical, 1; and others—those diseases whose names I don’t know or are too complicated to spell out here, 20. (btw, 34 related to me, 17 of them by blood)

And those are just the people I happen to know about (and that my brain recalls). There are friends and relatives I’ve lost contact with. I don’t know their stories. And some people are more private about personal issues. My best friend might have cancer and decided not to share, at least not yet.

Is this—ninety—is this normal? Seventeen blood kin? Is that the way it looks for others? Or am I the only one in touch with so many whose lives have been hijacked by this awful disease?

Now, I know cancer is an inclusive term for more than a hundred so-called different diseases, but they are a family, all identified by abnormal cell growth that spreads and crowds out healthy cells and interferes with necessary body functions and steals nutrients from tissues.

Cancer is a cruel disease, mean, vicious, painful. One whose treatments can be as bad or worse than the disease itself. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how old or young, what gifts you have for the world—cancer doesn’t care.

At least some people with cancer have found unexpected gifts along the way. Some of us know how to do that—to find some good, to learn something valuable, to grow, even in the most difficult of circumstances. But that doesn’t negate the atrocity of the disease itself.

For forty percent of the people on my list, cancer, or complications thereof, was their cause of death—mind you, some of those deaths are from as far back as the 1950s when early detection and advanced treatment technologies we have today simply didn’t exist. Others have almost sailed through treatment and are, at least at the moment, cancer-free. For still others, an uncertain prognosis hangs over them like the sword of Damocles. That sword actually hangs over everyone who has received a cancer diagnosis, whether they’ve been declared ‘cured’ or not, because those potentially deadly cells can hang around, unseen, for years. Every next check-up is a question mark.

People live with that question mark or that sword in different ways, but are rarely, if ever, unaware of it.

The same is true for those who love them.

My Writer’s Life

Every writer is first a reader. Probably a voracious one. I was weaned on Little Golden Books, those short, richly illustrated stories for toddlers and preschoolers. The books had only been in circulation for five years or so at that time, so they were still somewhat of a novelty—and at a quarter a pop, pretty affordable, too.

I still have some of them. The little books suffered through a lot of abuse, first at my hands and then my two brothers’. Some covers are missing. Crayon scrawls adorn the pages of most. Here and there one or another of us practiced our newly-acquired penmanship skills, such as they were.

For all their stereotypes, I still hold my first books in high regard. Busy Timmy, The Brave Little Tailor, A Day at the Seashore, and Three Little Kittens are some memorable ones. And I swear, even though I haven’t cracked The Little Golden Book of Jokes and Riddles in more than forty years, I can still repeat, without thinking, the silly rhymes and riddles I learned there.

One of my favorite reading memories is the bookmobile. I didn’t understand exactly how it worked, but I remember the large, squarish van pulling into our driveway on a regular basis the year we lived in Charlotte. I was six. Mother and I hopped on and picked out a good-sized stack of books to read until the next time our library-on-wheels stopped by to refuel our reading habits. It was like being in a candy shop!

I was six and had just begun to read Dick and Jane books in school. I wasn’t a reader before first grade—kindergarten had been unavailable to me. But I caught on fast, and, ever since, it’s been hard to pry a book from my hands—even now, after I’ve fallen asleep while reading one, according to the Gnome.

Remember writing themes in school? As I recall, those weekly events took place from the seventh grade on. They represented my first forays into creative writing. My themes were always graded well, but they were nothing spectacular. I’m not being modest; I remember being blown away by the imagination and creativity displayed in some of my classmates’ writings. I didn’t think that way. I had the technical aspects mastered, though. That’s probably why my grades were so good.

And then came that ubiquitous assignment for all college-prep senior English classes: the term paper. My chosen topic was the House of Windsor. The British royal family had dominated the news of my childhood and teenage years what with Elizabeth’s coronation and Margaret’s boundary-pushing escapades. And the romance surrounding King Edward VIII’s abdication to marry American socialite and divorcée Wallis Simpson was a never-ending source of media curiosity, even though it had occurred years before. The notion of giving up the throne for love was almost too romantic to bear.

How I loved the after-school hours I spent at the public library, reference books and 3×5-inch, ruled index cards spread out on a large, oak library table along with similar supplies belonging to one or more of my friends. The quiet togetherness, the visual stimulus of the stacks, the scent of old books and pencil shavings, the magic of the card catalog—oh, it was heady stuff! We walked the couple of blocks from school to the library, first stopping at the Rexall Drug Store across the street for a vanilla or cherry Pepsi and a pack of Nabs to give us sustenance. It all felt so sophisticated and scholarly.

In my career, I did a lot of writing, though most of it was on the technical side. Off and on (mostly off), I got a yen to practice creative writing, but I was never one of those writers who write because they can’t help themselves.

Maybe that’s not quite true. I’ve always been a pretty prolific and long-winded letter writer. And if a pen or pencil is handy, I’ll pick it up, even if it’s only to write the letters of the alphabet or indulge in some goofy doodles—I suppose a writer will use whatever outlets are available.

It was only after repurposing my life, thanks to Social Security and Medicare, that I rediscovered the great joy writing brings me, the satisfaction that comes from putting into words and onto paper the myriad thoughts that keep swirling in my head. Finding a couple of informal writing groups has cemented my writing habit, and blogging keeps it disciplined. While I may not be driven to write, I’ve come to realize my life feels more complete with it than without it.

So I write.

How about you? Are you a writer? How did it all start? What inspires you?

Three Little Words

(I wrote the following a little more than two years ago, knowing it wasn’t yet time to post it. Now the time has come. It may be a little disjointed since it was more or less stream of consciousness. I thought it better to leave it as it was, only adding an update.)

Three little words. Thirteen letters. Words that will dramatically change your life.

You hope not to hear them. But you have that feeling in your gut. You wait for them.

He has your fate in his hands. Why is he keeping you waiting? Doesn’t he know you’re anxious?

Finally, you hear the light tap on the door before it opens and he walks in.

And there they are. Those three little words. Laid bare.

“You have cancer.”

You’re different now.

Except that you aren’t. The truth was already there. The cancer was already there. You are the same today as you were yesterday. Your fate wasn’t in the doctor’s hands. What he said didn’t change a single fact. It just changed what you know.

Today you know a thing you didn’t know yesterday, or even a moment ago. You suspected it. Maybe you feared it. But you didn’t know it. Yet, it was there.

You have cancer.

You had it yesterday.

You had it last week.

Nothing is different today except that you know it. And you’ll know it tomorrow. And the day after that. And the next day. Forever.

If you hadn’t made that appointment, you wouldn’t know it today, either. But you’d still have it. Nothing can change that truth.

* * * * *

For the few weeks we were waiting for the biopsy and then the results, we made a conscious decision: we weren’t going to worry about it. It either was or wasn’t. Nothing we could do, say, think, or get worked up about would change a thing. We could hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but nothing would change what was. We went on about our daily lives.

And now we know. The question now is what to do about it. Here’s what.

Get informed. Listen to the doc. Take notes; review them. Ask questions. Read the literature. Research.
Get a second opinion or consultation, if we want. (We didn’t. It was pretty straightforward.)
Make a treatment decision.
Tell the family.
Make plans.
Do what it takes: schedule surgery, get radiation, take meds—whatever the regimen is.

But most of all, meanwhile and forever, live life.

You can’t change what is, but you can decide to continue doing what matters. You can make the best of what you have. Cancer may change you. It may not. It may shorten your life or it may not. So may or may not any number of other things. With or without a cancer diagnosis, your decision should be the same: live whatever life you have the best you can. On your own terms.

I’ve heard it said everyone will get cancer if they live long enough. Some people get it sooner, but eventually, if something else doesn’t do you in first, it will be cancer. It is part of life itself. At a certain point, your body starts to turn on you. Metabolism slows. Bones get brittle. Joints creak. Age spots and wrinkles appear. Hair thins. Minds become less elastic, less quick. And maybe your cells get all out of whack. It is all part of the end. The end starts at the beginning.

We won’t forget those three words, those thirteen letters. Certainly not that one, loaded, six letter word. We’ll do what it takes. But we won’t stop living. Tonight we’ll sleep snuggled together (maybe a little closer). Tomorrow we’ll get up, dress, make and eat breakfast, check e-mail, harvest vegetables, mow the grass. We’ll plan our upcoming trip. We’ll laugh.

Cancer is now a part of us. But cancer will not define us. Cancer will not control us.

P.S. The cancer diagnosis was not for my body. It was for his. But it somehow feels the same. At least for me. He agrees, but there’s surely a difference when it’s actually your body. Nonetheless, from the first moment we heard the three word pronouncement, both of us have thought in terms of “we.” The surgery, the treatment, the decisions, the life we lead—they’re ours together. And we aim to make the best of it.

Update: The diagnosis was prostate cancer. For eighteen months after the surgery, there was no evidence any cancer cells remained. Then, just like that, it was back. (If you’re so inclined, you can read Ron’s version of this story and journey here and here.)

The very good news is there is no indication that it has spread beyond the prostate bed, and a combination of hormone and radiation therapy seems like a winning strategy. For now, we’re waiting for the radiation oncologist and his team to complete mapping a therapy plan so radiation treatments can begin.

Off and on, I’ll likely use this blog space to share more thoughts and experiences about how we’re navigating this new territory in our lives. Stay tuned.

Country Living

It’s taken a long time for me to realize it, but I must live in Hooterville. I did love watching Petticoat Junction and Green Acres back in the day. (If you’re too young to understand those references, or if you just feel like a little nostalgic break from reality, click here and here.)

It’s no wonder we landed up here on the diagonal.

But it was only recently that I noticed the signs for the side roads off of the steep, dusty, barely-two-lane road I often take when I’m heading down into the valley a couple of miles away. To give myself credit, there were no green signs to identify them until our county developed its 911 system, but that’s been a long time now, so any credit due me is minuscule.

Indeed, one of those roads is Green Acres Trail. Loafer’s Joy Drive sounds like it would be perfect for Petticoat Junction’s Uncle Joe. Bugtussle Lane is just down the road a piece. And, honest-to-goodness, I drive right by Feuders’ Hill. There’s got to be a story there! The road I’m driving on is no different—Tater Hill. Yep, I’m way out in the country.

Looking into the valley from Tater Hill Road

I like it here. We may not always see eye-to-eye with our neighbors on a few important socio-political issues, but this is the kind of place where an attentive person—and they’re all attentive—will run out in the rain to pick up a package hanging on the arm of our rural mailbox so it won’t get drenched.

And if a strange vehicle turns onto our half-mile, private, gravel drive, someone’s almost sure to follow, insist on learning the driver’s name and business, and proclaim, “We’re all family here [though not quite all of us are], and we watch out for each other.” Fair warning.

It’s a comfort. And you gotta appreciate the history of the place. The folks who live in the two-story frame house down the road a piece include the great-great-great grandchildren of the ones who built it. Imagine that—a six-generation farm!

So, yes, most folks around these parts are family. But not us; we’re the interlopers—we’ve only lived here forty years. It may have taken a long time, but knowing a neighbor includes us in the informal neighborhood watch creates the kind of reassurance that only comes where folks grow their own vegetables and still hang their wash on the line.

It’s home.

Country Roads

Alongside the country road I drive most days, I’m sure to find—depending on the time of year—trillium, wild irises, fire pinks, flame azaleas, rhododendron, mountain laurel, Japanese meadowsweet, bee balm, daisies, evening primrose, black-eyed Susans, Turk’s cap lilies, Queen Anne’s lace, wild blackberries, Joe-Pye weed, touch-me-nots, ironweed, snow, and ice. All strikingly beautiful and all worth slowing down for.

 

On a cool but sunny day, I’m as likely as not to find a lazy dog dozing on the asphalt, in no hurry to get out of my way.

It isn’t rare to find myself behind a farmer driving his slow-moving tractor from one field to another. Other times it may be a load of Christmas trees or a flatbed groaning under the weight of too many rolls of hay puttering along in front of me.

A deer, raccoon, possum, chipmunk, squirrel, rabbit, or even a fox or bobcat might scamper—or mosey—across the road any time of day or night.

I often come upon a car or truck at a dead standstill, the driver having stopped to catch up on the latest community ‘news’ with a neighbor. Usually, they’ll look ahead and wave me around; they’re nowhere near ready to move on themselves.

It’s only right to roll down the window for a “Howdy” when couples are out for a morning jog or an evening stroll. Those moments, too, may turn into drawn-out conversations.

One should never be in a hurry on a country road.

Holy Words

Lately, I’ve found myself deeply touched by the words of others. Yes, mere words have lifted me up and given me new hope. There is something of the holy* in their wisdom. (*Etymology lesson of the day: the English word ‘holy’ comes from the Old English word hālig, meaning “whole” as in sound, healthy, complete.Wise words, coming from lessons well-learned, have the potential to make us whole. 

My young friend Emma recently had the opportunity to immerse herself in the life and culture of the Philippines. She came away with this insight: “I am beyond grateful for my life and being able to have the opportunity to come and visit this amazing country, where they are grateful every night for simple things such as a glass of water.”

A cousin who recently suffered a stroke and has a long recovery road ahead of him is taking on the challenge with great determination. He reminds us that “the simplest tasks are the hardest;” he takes pride in every inch of progress including his first day moving to and from his wheelchair with no falls, noting, “You have to learn to appreciate the simple things in life . . . and be glad to have lived through yet another day!!!” He has the saving grace of a sense of humor. After the hard work of putting on and tying his shoes, he realized he’d gotten them on the wrong feet. “You have to learn to laugh a lot,” he said. 

A special friend living with a serious illness said something along these lines: “There have been unexpected blessings on this journey,” as she expounded on the kindnesses of others and a hyperawareness of beauty and truth.

Each of these perceptive people has learned big lessons. Each is a little different, and each one is important. May we all be blessed with the empathy to see and appreciate the daily struggles of others. May we all develop the ability to look around us and honor the unearned bounty that surrounds us. May we learn to laugh at ourselves and to honor our baby steps; they have the potential to turn into giant leaps. And may we recognize and be strengthened by the blessings bestowed by good people, be they professionals, family, neighbors, or strangers.

Whether we want to believe it or not, there is a whole heck of a lot we can’t control in life. But we can learn from it. These inspiring people in my life have learned important life lessons, and they inherently understand the value of passing them on. May we be good students of them and their kind. Be whole.

Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer

They call them the dog days of summer, these days of July and August, usually the hottest and most humid of the year (for those of us in the northern hemisphere). But I can already feel fall. The air has grown slightly less moist, hinting at autumn’s dry coolness, even when the thermometer doesn’t agree.

I hear it in the sounds of insects—different from early summer bug buzzes and chirps. And I hear the occasional thump when a premature nut hits the ground.

I see it in the trees. Their leaves grow simultaneously darker and paler, and occasional ones waft to the ground. I see it in the flowers, too, whose colors have changed from bright summery hues to the softer mauves, lavenders, and golds of fall.

Yes, we may still officially be in summer’s dog days, but fall is in the air. There’s something slightly wistful about these times when the old begins to fade and the new is just beyond the horizon. We become nostalgic for something not yet gone. While some of us bemoan the loss of barefoot days, summer picnics, tubing down a river, others are perking up at the prospect of football, fall foliage, apple cider, and hayrides.

By the way, do you know where the term ‘dog days of summer’ comes from? I always thought it had to do with the way lethargic dogs laze on country roads or under porches during our annual heat waves. I guess in a roundabout way that’s not far off. In fact, the ancient Romans called the hottest, most humid days of summer ‘dog days’ because they associated them with the star Sirius, the dog star. Our most sultry days coincide, more or less, with the time each year when Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, appears to rise just before the sun.

At this time in my life, the change of seasons brings a question to mind. It looms larger with each cycle—what changes lie in store with the next season? But, whatever is in my own future, my head knows that each season brings its own gifts. My challenge is to embrace them while they are here in all their fullness and, when the time comes, to let them go lightly so I can do the same when the next one rolls around.