Doctor as patient – a cancer journey.

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dr ms cancer hike2I was asked to speak at the 2016 kick-off meeting for Kittitas County’s Relay For Life. I was grateful for the opportunity, and this is what I said:

Thank you for inviting me to share a few words tonight, and thank you for caring about your family, friends and community members who experience cancer.

Relay for Life is important for our community, and I would like to express why. But first I would like to provide a little background about myself and my cancer experience.

As a family physician, I see cancer from different perspectives, and help patients in different ways. I diagnose cancer and have to share this news to patients and families.  I take care of people who are in the midst of their cancer treatments. I help patients who have had cancer, as many cancer survivors have special follow up needs, and many are left with chronic medical problems as a result of their cancer or cancer treatment.  I also celebrate with my patients when they are cured. And I care for people with cancer who are dying, where the focus is comfort.

I am also a person who has had cancer. I have received the diagnosis of having cancer, I have traveled the winding path that is the cancer journey. It is a path that travels through long dark tunnels; a path that can seem endless and grueling; and a path that rises to summits upon clear mountain tops where the air is clear, fresh and happy.

Having a cancer is a physical problem, but from my experience in treating cancer patients and in fighting cancer myself, I feel that some of the most powerful aspects of having cancer have to do with how it affects the soul.

The fear and sense of loss that is experienced by many– if not all of us– who receive the cancer diagnosis, is very difficult. It is not only the fear of death, but also a profound fear of loss and uncertainty. Thoughts spring up unbidden: What will this cancer do? Will it separate me from my family? Will I leave this Earth and the beauty that is life? What will the treatments do? Will the cancer leave me physically maimed and unable to live as I have known? Who will I be when it is over? My life may change and never be the same.

All of a sudden life becomes potentially so short. Probably my greatest fear was that I might become pulled away from those I love. Fear and loss. It feels as though the foundations of one’s life shakes and may be swept away. The fear that cancer provokes is formidable.

Another powerful and very difficult feeling many people with cancer struggle against is that of isolation. When I was told I had cancer, I was quickly swept up into the medical process of diagnostic tests, then treatments, and then follow up appointments. It was almost as if I had entered a time-warp, a different dimension of life than what everyone else was experiencing. The routines of work, errands, socializing– activities I took for granted– suddenly stopped or changed significantly. A person with cancer steps out of his or her prior life and into a different one, a new life that is not wanted. I remember writing in my Caring Bridge journal, crying as I did so, that “I want my previous life back!” It is this different, separate life, that promotes a feeling of loneliness and isolation. I was fortunate and extremely thankful that I had strong and wonderful support from my family, friends, and larger community. I remember, on multiple occasions, asking Anne, my wife, how did a person who was alone, without others to support them, manage this journey on their own? The thought of negotiating cancer on my own was inconceivable.

Cancer, though, is transformative. One enters the fire and is transformed, emerging a stronger soul. I don’t think this transformation is a voluntary choice, but it seems inherent in the cancer journey. And if a cure is not possible and one is ultimately consumed by the fire that is cancer, it is not without intense personal growth.

In my own personal journey, I experienced profound fear, worry, and a sense of loss. Fortunately though, I experienced the power of hope and felt my inner strength. My fear became replaced by hope. And throughout my cancer journey I felt tremendous support and love, which melted away feelings of isolation. The opposite of fear is hope. The opposite of isolation is support and love. I wish that no person had to experience cancer. But if cancer occurs, my wish for others is that fear is replaced by hope, and that isolation is replaced by feelings of connection and support.

Experiencing hope and loving support helped me muster the courage to make the cancer journey, and fortunately, I have survived. I celebrate every day: I am cured. Is it because of the type of cancer I had, my health, my attitude, the support I had, the medical treatment, or just plain luck? I really don’t know. Maybe a little of everything. Maybe mostly luck. I just know I am extremely thankful.

So what does this have to do with Relay For Life? It has everything to do with Relay. Relay is an important fundraising event for the American Cancer Society, but to me the much more important aspect of Relay, and the reason I want to see Relay flourish in our community, is the symbolism it offers.

Relay embodies hope. Relay is a positive event, it is about believing in a cure, and it is a celebration. Participating in Relay For Life strengthens the belief in the power of the human spirit to overcome cancer and prevail.   Meanwhile, walking through the darkness of night and experiencing the beautiful dawn is an affirmation of the strength and endurance of the human spirit.

Relay is also about love and support. It is about people from our community gathering to support each other– to support those who have cancer, families that are affected by cancer, and those that have lost loved ones to cancer. The physical presence of people coming together during Relay is a powerful antidote to the isolation so many people affected by cancer feel. I am filled with gratitude and a feeling of interconnectedness when I think of Relay.

This event is about people coming together to support each other, to feel the power of hope and the human spirit, to console each other, and to celebrate together.  This is why Relay for Life and other cancer walks are so important. They symbolize the forces in the cancer journey that conquer fear and isolation:  that hope is stronger than fear, that we are not alone, and that love is more powerful than cancer.

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