It only seems fitting that I post this essay relating to cancer on the 7th anniversary of my Grandpa Ken’s death (February 25, 2003), due to liver cancer and complications from diabetes. We are all touched by cancer, but when faced with that news, how would I choose to fight it and survive? Or, if faced with my immortality, would I leave behind a legacy of hope as reflected in my courageous struggle?
With hundreds of named cancers, it appears that it is an insidious disease that lurks inside all of us. A cancer researcher working on gene therapies to combat the disease once told me, “a cancer cell is like a dandelion. Once you blow on that dandelion, those little seeds are cast to the wind and spread the weed. Cancer spreads like a weed through our bodies in a similar manner.”What is true is that we all have at least one story to tell about someone who has touched our lives. Perhaps it was someone who faced the minefield of a cancer diagnosis, treatment, remission and even death, but through the enormity of the struggle, made a difference!
In my 18 years on this earth, I can count on both hands how many people with cancer have touched my life, but I would like to share the stories of two very special men whose stories have changed my life forever. Bob lost his life to a very rare cancer, Langerhan’s cell histiocytosis (LCH). Steve is in remission today with thyroid cancer.
Bob’s funeral was the end of a very long struggle that began in the 1960’s when he was diagnosed with Langerhan’s cell histiocytosis. When my family met him in 1997, he had out lived the prognosis which said he wouldn’t make it to age 18. At 33, Bob was dwarfed by the effects of the disease and stood at 4’ 10.” His body was riddled with tumors that according to his doctors, “were time bombs waiting to go off.” Yet, despite his physical challenges, he was a brilliant computer scientist, devoted to his family and tenacious about beating his disease before it beat him.
His first hospitalization came the following year. One of the tumors had attached itself to his brain stem. Not only was it miraculous that he survived the surgery, but he was able to return his job full time. However, the doctor’s were not able to remove the entire tumor, because of how it was wrapped around his brain stem. The fall before my Grandpa Ken passed away, the bomb had finally gone off: Bob’s right foot began to hurt.
In April of 2004, Bob’s rare cancer had finally spread to his lungs and bones. Although his prognosis was grave, he never gave up! From one specialist to another, up and down the west coast he travelled, searching for new therapies that, in the least would give him more precious time, but could possibly cure him!
Bob was an amazing man who in those years of remission, sat with my father at our computer, teaching him how to understand the complexities of computer science curriculum so my father could finally earn his bachelor’s degree. I didn’t understand the intricacies of his cancer at the time, but knew he was fighting to see his children grow up. But above all, he inspired me to never give up on anything no matter how hard it might be.
Steve is another good friend of our family who developed a lump on his throat. Other symptoms led him to believe something was wrong with his thyroid, but initial blood tests and a biopsy did not confirm that. Steve believed his body, not the diagnosis and so for the next year, he went to 7 doctors in all asking the test be redone. What he found was that the first 6 doctors wouldn’t override the initial findings of the first 1 for fear of being sued. Throughout this year, Steve scoured the internet, asked questions of scientists he knew in the field and completely changed his eating habits. He firmly believed he had thyroid cancer and when that diagnosis came, he wanted to have his body ready to take on the surgery and therapy that would give him the best chance at a quick recovery and remission.
Steve was not deterred and kept demanding referrals until he finally found a doctor that ran another biopsy, finally taking a sample from the opposite side of the thyroid gland. Proven correct, Steve got immediate treatment and is still dropping by our house unannounced for a beer and pistachios, all thanks to his being an active solution to his prognosis!
James “Rhio” O’Connor faced one of the deadliest and fastest spreading cancers, mesothelioma. A cancer caused by exposure to asbestos , the prognosis for remission was grim. (For further information relating to mesothelioma, go to www.survivingmesothelioma.com.) However, Mr. O’Connor’s approach to battling his cancer in an attempt to beat it was not only valiant, but inspiring! My family raises and shows English bulldogs and if there’s one similarity between the personality of a bulldog and the protocol for dealing with any life altering event, is a tenacious persistence to not give up. Like our bullies are happy, I am an optimistic person. When I have been faced with challenges, I see my options in a “glass half full” manner, rather than “the glass is half empty.” That does not mean that I would not be upset with a dramatic and shocking cancer diagnosis. I would rely even more heavily on my faith and family to see me through the long and difficult days ahead. Knowledge is power and the internet is the gateway to that knowledge.
Lastly, I believe it is critically important to be a partner with your team of doctors and specialists, whether it’s cancer or diabetes. Cancer has become so prevalent now , that it’s easy to become desensitized to the struggle. Much the same way we ignore a street musician in the subway or a beggar on a corner, it’s easy to push the needs of the cancer patient to the corner or our mind… until it directly affects us.
As I researched and pondered the content of this essay, I realized that Mr. O’Connor’s personality reminded me of the men featured here, but especially of my Grandpa Ken! While we do not know the hour in which we might leave this earth, what will be said of us? Those who fight cancer learn how to live in the moment, savoring the sweet sounds of the world around them so much more than the rest of us hurrying through our lives. Even though the battle was ultimately lost to Mr. O’, their legacy of how to fight with dignity lives on.