WINNING THE BATTLE
You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.”
~ Eleanor Roosevelt
“She died Wednesday after a battle with breast cancer. She was 33.”
“Mr. Brown lost his battle with cancer yesterday. He was 54.”
“After a long bout with cancer, Mrs. Reilly passed away last evening.”
Jimmy Walker …..Betty….Patty…Mr. Jones…. “Lost the battle.”
My first experience with cancer was in the summer of 1975 when my brother’s 31 year old wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. At that time, there was little hope for a cure. When her two years of oral chemotherapy were up, she started having severe headaches. Misdiagnosed as depression, a later CT scan revealed two brain tumors. The cancer spread rapidly to her lungs and other organs. She died 2 months later.
Up until the late ‘70’s, the very word “cancer” meant a likely death sentence. Doctors rarely used the term with a patient because it might take away hope. There was also a cultural stigma associated with having “the cancer.”
Even in 1988, when my aunt was diagnosed with advanced cancer of the lung, liver and brain, people still lowered their voices when saying the word. The aura surrounding the plight of a cancer victim was shadowy. I lived in a time when cancer was the victor in almost every “battle.” And yet, when I had several bouts of “bronchial pneumonia” in 1992, I came face to face with my own cancer challenge.
When I heard “It’s malignant”, I was in shock. Even though I realized the possibility existed, I wanted to hear “It’s benign!” Denial was natural. Anger turned to rage. But, I knew that I somehow had to channel my rage into courage.
When I read the statistics revealing that the 5-year survival rate for Stage IV, bilateral lung cancer was less than 5%, I had to put myself in that category. I asked God to make me part of that 5 out of 100 select group. I also asked Him for the wisdom and strength to live whatever days He gave me with dignity and fearlessness.
I realized that the best thing that I could do for my life was to keep on living it, not wait around to see what was going to be left. I made a “To Do” list every day. There might have been only one or two items on it. And nothing more strenuous than scooping cat litter or making phone calls. Though my doctor told me that the potency of the initial chemotherapy might, in fact, kill me, I went back to work as soon as possible after those first rounds of treatment.
One of the most difficult things about treatment was losing my hair. I joked that saving money on razor blades and shaving cream was not worth the agony of the wigs that I wore. They were the most uncomfortable, itchy things in the world. If I hadn’t been working in a school system with lots of children, I would have given them up. I was a school psychologist with several schools to serve. During my many meetings with parents, staff and children, I would ever so slyly stick my pen in between the wig and my shiny head to scratch. Unknowingly, I often moved the wig around, causing more than a few chuckles and “your wig’s slipping” gestures from others.
I tried to maintain as “normal” a life as possible, but what frightened me most was the feeling that life was leaking through my fingers. After 6 months of watching other chemo patients get their balloons and “graduate” from chemotherapy, I wondered when I would receive “my balloons.” My oncologist sat down beside me and told me there would be none for me. He explained that because I had incurable cancer, I would always be in chemotherapy.
Despite my devastation, I realized at that moment, my desire to live and will to fight was going to be every bit as important as the therapy itself. Living with cancer had become my life.
Suddenly, I was no longer the person I had been before the diagnosis. I was now “Ann with cancer.” “A cancer victim.” “A cancer patient.” “A cancer survivor.” Or, ultimately, I might be: “Ann, who lost her battle with cancer.” I sometimes laugh when I think that if I were to die in a car crash or from a heart attack, I might be: “Ann, who was winning her battle with cancer when she died.”
Early on, I read a great book by Randy Becton, Everyday Strength: A Cancer Patient Guide to Spiritual Survival. I learned that cancer had to be viewed as a formidable enemy, but one that could be conquered.
“Your cancer is real, but you are determined to be a survivor- you are stronger than your disease.”
It didn’t take courage to read Becton’s book, but it took a lot to believe it. As Raymond Lindquist said: “Courage is the power to let go of the familiar”. And cancer demanded that of me.
Having courage to fight the fight of cancer survival does not always mean maintaining a positive attitude and staying upbeat, never getting mad, never fearing death, never being overwhelmed and stressed out, questioning God, yelling at family and friends, feeling sad, losing control and feeling guilty about all of it. You do not have to “put on a happy face” to be courageous.
When the price of over 8 years of continuous chemotherapy had caused a weakened immune system, debilitating fatigue, “chemo brain” and severe peripheral neuropathy, and the pain was so great that I had to take mind-numbing doses of medication, I learned that the presence of pain was a good thing – it meant that my nerves were fighting to stay alive. That I understood.
I often found myself wondering whether true courage is to be found in the dying from, rather than the living through, this war on cancer. My cancer. It is a war comprised of many battles and conflicts and struggles. It is now a lifelong encampment. Regardless of what is written upon my death certificate: I have battled cancer and won many times. But I will always be a cancer victim. A cancer patient. A cancer survivor – even if cancer ultimately wins. I have won many battles.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes that in the concentration camp where he was held prisoner every experience conspired to make the prisoner lose his control. All the familiar and dear in life are snatched away. Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: “the last of human freedoms” – to “choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Cancer – living with, or dying from cancer, is much like a concentration camp. We did not choose to have it, we are uncertain of the length of our sentence, and we are helpless in the face of our circumstance. However, we can indeed choose how to react to the condition. Like Frankl, we find that “if there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying.”
How can we measure courage in the face of one of life’s gravest challenges – the threat of death itself? Is the courage meted out in confronting cancer or in conquering cancer? And does conquering cancer have to mean curing it? Or can it come to mean living with it or dying from it?
Because I am still here does not mean that I have stronger spirit or character than the person who faced cancer and “lost” the battle. Courage is to be found in both of us.