I admire the strength and determination of cancer survivors

I was recently sitting on an airplane on my way to a far off destination for a meeting preceded by a couple of days of rest and relaxation.

In and of itself, nothing particularly special about that except that maybe a couple of folks will be jealous. But to me, right now it is an incredible moment, the culmination of a lot of hope and a lot of prayer that I would get to this place on this day. And with that hope and prayer, there is a lot of life-learning that got me here.

About two months ago I wrote a somewhat tongue in cheek blog about being back at work. I had some surgeries to replace several joints (three, in fact) and was thrilled to be back at work, pain free and functional.

But as life would have it, my joy was premature. Shortly after I wrote that blog, I began a journey that I hope few will have to travel. And it isn’t over yet.

The details would bore you (I assure you I have bored many friends who have asked). The short version is that after I wrote that blog, and two weeks following my final knee replacement, I went through a series of medical events that are still ongoing and which staggered our lives.

First there was a wound rupture, related to some extensive gout found at the time of the original surgery, followed by another trip to the operating room, followed by several weeks of intensive wound therapy. That was not successful, and the wound developed a tract into the knee prosthesis, resulting in severe pain and a serious infection and another trip back to the operating room on a Sunday morning. That was followed by twice daily IV antibiotic therapy while I remained immobile so the wound would heal. Then, two weeks later, high fevers and chills developed, marking a severe total body antibiotic reaction resulting in a midnight trip to the emergency department and two days later another hospitalization.

The good news is that the past three weeks have been relatively uneventful. I have emerged from my “immobilizing” recliner, only to develop severe foot pain which put me right back in the seat. Now that is past, I am able to walk, and thus was able to take this trip. But 21 days ago, that was far from certain. And we still don’t know if/when there will be a relapse, which will mean more surgery and even more intensive treatment than I have gone through so far.

Why do I bother sharing this with you? I may be a public person, but you probably (and understandably) don’t want to hear about my travails. After all, you likely have plenty of your own to worry about.

So let’s put aside the sympathy saga, and let’s talk about what really counts. Let’s talk about lessons of life, what it means to feel out of control, what it means to try to find something to hold onto when your emotions and the emotions of those you love are at rock bottom. And let’s talk about the incredible love and support that can surround you in your time of need.

I write a cancer blog, so I know that there are many people who either have cancer or have been touched by cancer who read what I write. And having gone through what I have gone through, I can’t begin to imagine how you do what you do, how you cope with disease, hope and frustration as part of your everyday lives for the length of your days. No matter what I ever thought before, my experience has brought to me the reality that you are fundamentally amazing people. You are everyday testaments to the power of our love, our resiliency and our humanity. I have treated you, I have worked with you, I have visited with you. But never have I respected you more than I do at this very moment in my life, a moment when I can only begin to appreciate how very special you are.

For those of you who are survivors and are reading this blog, know that you provided me a guide and a support that I never anticipated. Your courage in living your lives gave me hope in some very dark moments. You got me out of my funk, you made me commit to thinking positively and doing what I could to get better-even if it meant lying there almost stock still for over three weeks. You didn’t know that my professional lifetime of caring for you would give me the structure to go on, but you did.

The lessons of community and sharing are something we think we have learned through our life experiences. Yet few of us have reached those moments when those lessons really come to life. But we are communities of love and concern. The cancer experience is filled with others who are willing to help. It is filled with people who are willing to offer their support and encouragement, who may have gone through the same journey, who are able to lift you up when your spirits are down, when everything seems to be moving in the wrong direction. And they are there to remind you that tomorrow just may be a better day.

For me, as for you, first and foremost there are the caregivers.

I wrote previously about my beautiful wife. If she was my treasure before this happened, you can’t imagine what she means to me now. By my side and by my bedside every day, caring for me, driving me, crying with me, and praying with me, she became the embodiment of life and hope and sharing during some very difficult moments. Waking her up one night at 12:30AM and telling her we had to go to the hospital because I had a fever was one of the most difficult moments I have ever faced, for all that it meant. I was sick, the treatments were failing. And take me she did, holding my hand, offering love and support despite the pain in her heart.

Needless to say, there are many others. My son who came from his home out of town to sit with me for five days, never making me feel guilty for asking for help, demonstrating to me that he had matured into a wonderful, even selfless young man. And our friends who either brought us meals when we didn’t have time (or energy) to cook or took us into their homes, and the folks from the church who knocked on the door one Sunday night with soup, casseroles and dessert to show they cared.

And the friends and colleagues, from everywhere, who sent their love, their gifts and their prayers to speed me along my way to recovery, to bring a smile to our faces when we were feeling so down, so hurt, so lost.

The nurses and doctors who were always there when I needed them, who put up with my continuous questions and requests, some born of my compulsive nature to make certain the right antibiotics were going to be administered at the right time. The doctor who travelled back to our hometown on a Saturday night to operate on a Sunday morning because this situation was almost as personal for him as it was for me. The doctors who made themselves available from afar to help guide us through the several critical decision points we had to make regarding antibiotics. My internist who never made me feel intrusive when I actively engaged in the decision-making process.

I may be able to get through all of this and get back to a reasonable level of normalcy. We will probably know in a couple of weeks whether or not the infection is going to return. So many cancer survivors will always be living with the thought of their disease for the remainder of their lives. They will carry it with them wherever they will go, whatever they will do. It will not disappear.

That doesn’t mean that cancer survivors won’t go on and live their lives. That is exactly what so many do. They don’t let their disease consume all of their moments. And that’s why I admire their strength, their fortitude, their determination, their innate ability to live their lives and to enjoy their lives.

So maybe, just maybe you can understand why this airplane ride was so important. It is a return to a semblance of normality, a return to “everyday”, even if only for a couple of weeks. It is walking through the airport and not having pain. It is the prospect of some sunshine when a couple of weeks ago there was only darkness.

To all of the survivors, caregivers, friends, colleagues, health professionals and many others: Thank you for who you are and what you share, unconditionally. You are beacons to so many you touch, in ways you will never know. You have certainly been a beacon to me.

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld is deputy Chief Medical Officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society. He blogs at Dr. Len’s Cancer Blog.

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