On Cancer

April 6, 2011
You have cancer.

Those words change lives. They mean the ending of one chapter and the beginning of the next. They can mean “Life might turn out to be a lot shorter than you anticipated”, or “Make sure you have everything settled with your family now so you don’t have deep regrets if this doesn’t turn out the way you hope”. It’s an affliction, a definition, and something that grabs your attention like a red light or a car accident. It makes you stop; it makes you wish you could look away. It makes you wish you were five years old, when you still believed in Santa and the Tooth Fairy and even the monster under your bed, because back then magic existed, and good always thwarted evil, and everything ended with a happily ever after.

But cancer rewrites those stories. Even the good guys fall prey to it. And cancer isn’t satisfied with just that one person. It spreads to everyone else in their story, everyone who cares about them. Because whether the doctors say so or not, cancer is contagious. It slips from the afflicted to others through people’s hearts, and starts gnawing away at it. Then it spreads to the brain, and begins to grow and nurture doubt. And once the brain is full of doubt’s thorny vines, it sneaks into the nerves. There, it spikes pain and tries to leach away courage. But it is in the nerves that cancer that does not succeed. Because people who have cancer, and people who love somebody with it, are some of the most courageous people I know.

Take my grandfather for instance. He was supposed to die over ten years ago. I think, if he were anybody else, he would have died. He has had cancer in nearly every feasible part of his body. Every time, he beats it back. He has less than a quarter of his lungs left because of it, and he’s going on eighty, but he just got his pilot’s license last year. He goes up and flies to different states in his spare time, though God knows there’s less oxygen in the sky than on the ground, and that he could use all the oxygen he can get. He’s riding around on his motorcycle, he’s being interviewed for a documentary about World War Two. He’s talking in important meetings about the health effects the Rocky Flats plant has had, and taking his grandchildren out for ice-cream at all hours of the night on a whim.

My grandpa has cancer again.

Will he bounce back from it like he always does? God I hope so. But here’s the thing about cancer: it’s
stubborn. Maybe as stubborn as the people who it attacks. And there’s no limit on how many times it can reappear. Not without a cure.

Some people believe there will never be a cure. But I have to believe there will be. Because here’s another fact about cancer:

It is estimated by the American Cancer Society that a woman has about one in three odds of getting cancer in her life. A man has a one in two. So let’s say you don’t get cancer. How many people do you know? More than five, I’m guessing.

Cancer is one of those things that will in time very likely become personal to all of us. So go on that cancer fund-raising walk, donate when you have a chance. There are plenty of opportunities, and it just might save your life.

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