There aren’t many words or events in your life that can cause you to stop dead in your tracks, cause you to stop breathing for a second or make your heart stop beating: getting that phone call that “there’s been an accident” or that a loved one has passed on and sitting across from a doctor and being told you have cancer. Everything just seems to freeze – your breath, your heart, time, the world’s rotation. You question yourself. “Did I hear him right?” “She must be mistaken.” “I must have misheard him.”
When you finally catch up with the spinning earth, you hear the ticking of the clock on the wall again and your breathing begins anew, you hear yourself asking “Excuse me? Can you repeat that?” You heard the doctor correctly the first time. You look over at your spouse and she’s reeling from the news also. You kind of go numb. Life becomes surreal.
You automatically go to your default setting: cancer = surgery; cancer = radiation; cancer = hospital stays; cancer = losing your hair; cancer = debilitating cures; cancer = death. You race through your memory and start to recall all of those friends, family members, loved ones and acquaintances who’ve had cancer. You make a mental tally of those who have succumbed to the disease and those who have beaten it … at least for now.
Everyone has had to deal with this monster, either directly or indirectly. We all know a family member (wife, husband, child, parent, brother or sister) who’s had it, know a friend who’s had it, know a co-worker who’s had it or know someone who knows someone who’s had it. It shatters lives. It disrupts plans and dreams. It tests your strength and your faith.
So, what exactly is this “cancer” thing that reeks such havoc on our lives? I’ve done some research and here’s what I’ve learned. According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer is defined as cells that divide without stopping and spread to surrounding tissue. Kind of already knew that. While all cells in our body divide, cancer cells are different. Cancer cells are able to ignore the body’s signals to stop growing or are able to ignore signals to shut themselves down and die when those cells are no longer needed by the body. That’s something I didn’t know. In simple terms, they can behave like teens who ignore their parents or act like the unwanted relatives who refuse to go home after the holiday visit.
Don’t misinterpret my “light-hearted” approach to the technical details of cancer. This is serious stuff; very serious. According to the American Cancer Society (“ACS”), it is estimated that over 1,600,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in 2015 and almost 600,000 deaths are estimated from cancer in 2015. They estimate that over 40,000 women will die of breast cancer and more than 27,000 men will die from prostate cancer in 2015. Lung cancer and colon cancer will claim the lives of an estimated 158,000 and 52,000 men and women, respectively. All in all, the statistics show that 43% of men will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime and 23% will die from it; for women the figures are 38% and 19%, respectively.
And this thing is an equal opportunity killer. It brings all to their knees regardless of socio-economic status, education, gender, religion and creed. All the money in the world cannot buy you another day. Just ask Steve Jobs.
And what about the economic impact of cancer? Well, it’s staggering. In 2011, the ACS estimates that the direct medical costs associated with cancer was over $89 billion in the US alone. This doesn’t even touch on the indirect costs of lost productivity, added stress, missed work days, etc. Of course, you can’t put a dollar figure on the loss of loved ones and friends. Those lives are priceless.
The personal costs from the wreckage of cancer is indescribable. I know from which I speak. While I have been fortunate in not receiving a diagnosis myself, cancer has touched my life through the ones I love. Two wives were diagnosed with cancer, my maternal grandmother died of stomach cancer, two aunts died from cancer, an uncle passed from cancer, a co-worker had cancer, a co-worker died from liver cancer, a friend has leukemia and the list goes on and on.
The battle is waged against cancer on many fronts – doctors, care givers, researchers and ordinary people who support the patients and their families. Progress has been made. Only 40 years ago, 50% of the patients diagnosed with cancer survived at least 5 years. As of 2014, that number jumped to 67%. More remains to be done and if you feel led to find out how you can help please visit the ACS at American Cancer Society to learn more.
How does this make me feel? Frankly, what I feel pales in comparison to what those with the diagnosis feel. What I can attest to is how powerless it all makes me feel. It really is a lesson to realize that there are limits on what I can offer and that I must rely on God to carry us through this crisis. I can use the tools I’ve learned in recovery to weather this storm – this is beyond my depth, God is bigger than this and I have to allow Him the room to work his “magic” and do what I am capable of doing.
So what can I do? I can continue to love my wife. I can pick up the weight of the daily routines that she might find difficult. I can continue to encourage her through the treatment. I can continue to be there for her.