Living With Cancer: #4

Ironically, one of life?s certainties is that there are no guarantees. As we make our journey, obstacles and opportunities present themselves at every bend in the road. This is not news to most of us.

What we sometimes fail to remember is that the decisions we make while traveling this road ultimately affect, to a greater or lesser extent, the outcome of our lives. This is particularly true in matters of health. I know I?m repeating myself in this week?s story, but the early detection and treatment of cancer in our bodies can radically affect the length of our journeys

Take the cases of Bob and Andy (I?ve changed the names to protect their privacy), two of my friends who handled diagnoses of cancer in different ways. Bob, retired from a federal civil service job, very active in his community, and just nicely 60, was diagnosed with colon cancer about two years ago. Andy, a talented musician, but one who had fallen on hard times in recent years, learned in his 58th year that he had throat cancer.

Bob noticed blood in his stools just over two years ago. A colonoscopy and CT colonography confirmed a tumor in his large intestine. He had surgery to remove the cancer almost immediately after that confirmation. No post-operative treatment was indicated. For more than a year, Bob remained cancer free. Then, during a routine follow-up, x-rays revealed a small spot on one lung. Chemotherapy was ordered, and Bob made regular trips to his regional cancer centre to receive it. The lung cleared, but further medical investigation showed that the cancer had returned to his bowels. More surgery, this time even more radical, was performed.

The upshot of Bob?s situation is that he lives on borrowed time today. Even after the second bowel operation, cancer has returned to the same area of his body. Bob continues to receive chemotherapy; but more importantly, he continues to serve his community daily, with nary a complaint. He understands that there is likely no chance that he and I will be sharing a glass of wine on his patio next summer. Many of the folks who?ve dealt with Bob over the years think he?s an irascible old bastard. Indeed, he is that. But Bob is also a person of great courage and fortitude, and one who cherishes his dignity.

Andy died a couple of weeks ago. Although we had been close in childhood, our adult journeys had taken us down diverse paths for nearly four decades. We had re-acquainted ourselves, briefly and infrequently over the last few years. Andy had remarried, relocated, and become a father again after the age of 50, but never seemed to really settle down. Some of life?s early habits fade away; Andy?s musical talents were no longer in demand. Some habits plague us until death comes calling; Andy was a committed, heavy smoker from his teen years. Whether that was the main factor, or whether it combined with genetics to attack his body, Andy died a horrible death from throat cancer, a terrible end for someone who was always known for his ?gift of gab?.

I had just returned home from my uplifting visit with Bob when a neighbour told me about Andy. I hadn?t known about Andy?s cancer until after he had been cremated and his eulogy read. I?m told that few people attended his funeral service. I?m told also that Andy ignored some of the more common symptoms of throat cancer ? lumps in the neck that don?t heal, a sore throat that does not go away, difficulty swallowing, a change in the sound of your voice, or prolonged hoarseness ? until treatment could do nothing for him. He died too young.

Becoming informed about cancer, recognizing that something is not right with your body, and seeking medical attention can make all the difference between adding quality and years to your life, and leaving behind a grieving widow and small children.

Both Andy and Bob could be described as positive people. Being positive about most things in life is important; but a positive attitude will take us only so far without other interventions. Bob is positive that, notwithstanding a spreading cancer, he will continue to the end doing exactly what he?s always done. Andy was always positive that his life was bound to turn around, perhaps just at the next bend in his journey.

I draw inspiration from both of these men, because each in his way has taught me something about myself, and my own battle with cancer.