Cancer – a disease in which abnormal somatic cell replication leads to the death of surrounding healthy tissue; one of the most feared diagnoses in the world. Cancer treatments have improved considerably over time, but the death rate for many cancers are still incredibly high. When a patient is diagnosed with cancer his first question is “How serious?” and if it is serious, “How long do I have?” Hopefully stronger questions follow: “What can I do about it?” “How can I improve my chances?” “Who can I speak to that might know more?” Horace, the Roman poet, once claimed, “Knowledge without education is but armed injustice;” it is the job of the patient to educate himself in order to find justice in an unjust world.
It is impossible for me to consider how I would handle a dire cancer prognosis, without first considering the two recent bouts of cancer suffered by members of my family. My mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in May of 2009; my great-aunt with ovarian cancer a year prior. My great-aunt underwent bouts of radiation and chemotherapy, but refused to accept how severe her condition was, deferring all questions and decisions to her aging physician and her two elderly sisters. Her fear of the truth and unwillingness to self-educate regarding her illness burdened many members of my family.
My mother, by contrast, spent endless hours on the internet researching all possible treatment options for colon cancer, including complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), though she decided not to use any CAM alongside her other treatment. Consultations with three different physicians, two from other states, gave her a multitude of options to choose from, all differing. When the first doctor suggested the removal of her entire colon, she sought another. A chance presented itself in the removal of the cancerous polyp alone, so she seized it; when that surgeon was unable to remove all the cancerous tissue beneath the polyp, she agreed to the removal of 7-9 inches of her colon. It was only after eliminating all other options that my mother agreed to invasive surgery.
Throughout this entire process she was reading blogs by colon cancer survivors, researching the survival rate of different treatments, and gathering information from news articles and medical websites. Numerous doctors and nurses commented on the depth of her research when she showed up to appointments with pre-typed lists of questions. On every visit she was sure to bring along my sister or myself; we were her second set of ears, to verify doctors’ answers and take notes on her questions. It is only as I write this that I realize the full extent of what my mother has done to insure that her quality of life will remain unchanged and that she will remain cancer-free.
Additionally, my mother has shown me that recovery and remission does not end with the sewing of the last stitch. It is a long process that can only be survived with a positive attitude, and a stalwart support system. My mother was not unhealthy before she was diagnosed with cancer, but following her diagnosis she has increased her fiber intake and exercises more frequently. She will now receive frequent colonoscopies, such that polyps can be removed before they become cancerous. She refuses to let colon cancer get in the way of her life.
John “Rhio” O’Connor’s triumph over cancer is certainly inspiring: to outlive such a dire diagnosis by 6 years is an incredible feat. But if someone asked me how I would cope with a cancer prognosis, I only hope that I could be as strong and as informed as my mother.