By Robert Ross

When Cancer Knocks, Everyone Answers



“Cancer is a horrible monster that  will affect everyone in the world in one way or another”  stated “The Crocodile Hunter” (from the Animal Planet T.V. series) after learning that his canine companion had contracted the deadly disease. The crocodile hunter was blunt in his description — “horrible monster.”  He was blunt . . . and accurate. Cancer will affect everyone, in one way or another.

Cancer paid a visit to my household in December, 2001. The knock was quick, unexpected and devastating. One moment the conversation was about the daily goings on of life. The next moment, it was about survival.

Since December, there have been periods of sadness, periods of happiness, (from the support that was given), periods of anger and frustration and an on-going barrage of lessons to be learned.

Lessons on Cancer
Cancer is a general term for more than 100 diseases that are characterized by uncontrolled, abnormal growth of cells.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States after cardiovascular disease. In the year 2000 about 1,200,000 new cases of cancer were diagnosed. One out of every four people in the U.S. will eventually develop cancer. About half of all men and one-third of all women will develop cancer in their lifetime. Almost 80% of all cancer cases are diagnosed at the age of 55 and older.

There are hundreds of different types of cancers, each with their own personalities — their own ways of operating in the body and their own ways of responding (or not responding) to treatment.

Lessons on Treatment
Since the 1960’s the word holistic has entered our lexicon. Holistic, as in caring, loving, nurturing, and supporting the patient. Holistic as in finding out who the patients are, as individuals, and working with them to solve their unique challenge. Listening to the T.V. commercials and radio ads from the various hospitals and HMOs, you’d think they were on the cutting edge of “holistic care,” and that going in for treatment was a bit like entering the Garden of Eden. The reality is, technology has changed, and new pharmaceuticals have entered the market since the 60’s, but most medical systems in operation are as cold and impersonal as ever. Frustrations abound, like standing in lines at each floor and department of a hospital, disputing insurance inaccuracies endlessly, attempting to call a physician, only to spend countless minutes pushing buttons on the phone and eventually being disconnected.

For us, after visiting a radiologist, oncologist and surgeon, we realized that each of these departments were making recommendations, but didn’t know what the other was saying concerning our problem. We got the sense, early on, that we were very much alone in this process. As far as the actual treatment of cancer goes, the modalities haven’t changed much in the past decades. The choices are surgery (remove the cancer), chemotherapy (kill it with drugs) or radiation (kill it with radiation). As one physician friend stated, “treating cancer is nothing more than using a cookbook approach.”  You have this kind of cancer, turn to chapter seven, and follow the recipe. The nightly news touts breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer. Those breakthroughs that are described may give hope, but in reality, take years to enter the mainstream. In the meantime, in traditional medicine, don’t expect the Garden of Eden, expect concrete buildings, long lines  and physicians who use the “cookbook approach.”

Lessons on Relationships
If there is a positive side to cancer, it is that it calls into question your relationships. All of your relationships!

“I told a friend of mine, via e-mail, that the lump may be a malignant cancer.” The e-mail received no answer. A follow-up phone message got no response either. Lunch partners for years, and yet the word cancer sent this person into hiding. Cancer is all about relationships. It’s about the relationship you have with your physician, your health care provider, your friends and  your family members. It’s about the relationship you have with your concept of God. And most importantly, the relationship you have with yourself. When cancer enters the scene, all of these relationships are put to the test, and can make an enormous difference in how the ordeal is survived.

Lessons on Support
I spent days staring at this huge gift pack that was sent to our home in support of the ordeal in which we were immersed. The gift pack stood about two feet tall, a foot and a half wide and was shaped like a pyramid. It was a platter filled with goodies, wrapped in cellophane, tied with a beautiful golden colored bow on top. All of the items (cookies, candies, etc.) in the  package were purposely chosen for their colors —  golds, browns and off-whites. It was too beautiful to open, so it was placed in our living room; a center piece that caught my attention as I moved from room to room. One of a dozen gifts. Simple gestures that helped take our mind off more serious issues. Simple gestures that made life fun in a way. The door bell kept ringing and flowers kept showing up. Simple gestures, that had a positive effect. A lesson on support.

Lessons on Living With the Monster
I wish I could say that this ordeal is behind us. On paper it is. Surgery and six weeks of radiation,  it’s a done deal, cancer gone. Yet, from this moment on, there will always be a part of us that says “is it coming back?”  There will be laughter and fun and great adventures ahead . . . but that voice however quiet it is, will be heard in the background whispering “is it coming back?”

We’ve joined a support group to deal with these issues. In the few meetings we’ve attended, one thing is quite noticeable. There is a sadness that accompanies cancer. Some of the participants are a walking advertisement for Kleenex, others hide their sadness, masking it in bravado. Nonetheless, the sadness is pervasive. But those who have stayed with a support group for any length of time, will state unequivocally, that the group has been instrumental in enhancing the quality of their lives.

Learning to live with this issue will be the challenge in the coming months and years. Hope alone will not suffice. Knowledge alone will not suffice. Relationships alone will not suffice. It will be all of these elements and more. I don’t know what that more is. I just know that there are many more lessons to be learned as we make our way down this uncertain path. Perhaps the more is an acceptance of, and making peace with, this visitor that has entered our lives.

In spite of the uncertainties that lay ahead, I do have a vision. And that is to say, at some point in the future, that that knock on the door — from cancer, was in strange way, the best thing that has ever happened. It changed us and those around us for the better. Call it a lesson on growing . . .

Robert Ross can be reached by e-mail at: 

Copyright 2002 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved

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