It's now been just over a month since I heard a doctor say to me, "It's probably cancer". I feel like my world has turned upside down in that short time, but I also know that I've learned a lifetime's worth of valuable things in those few weeks. The most surprising thing has been this: a cancer diagnosis is not necessarily a death sentence.
The American Cancer Society estimates that 1 out of 3 Americans will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetimes. That's a lot of people. And while it's a grim statistic, consider this: the 5 year relative survival rate in the U.S. for all types of cancer is something like 66%, and continues to improve (that includes all types and stages of cancer, and doesn't account for other illnesses or differences in behavior/environment that may affect health). So while an awful lot of people have cancer, a full two-thirds of them will survive it for quite a while. Granted, there are still far too many deaths from this disease, but it's not quite the nightmare we often assume it will be.
When I first got this diagnosis, I started to think about how awful it would be when I died an untimely death and left my young children behind. I think most of us, whether it's because of the sad stories we see and read, or because of a personal loss, believe that a cancer diagnosis means this is it - life is over. I don't believe that any more. I have heard more stories of survival from more people than I could possibly have imagined, even from people whose diagnoses were pretty grim at first. The oncologists treating me have all said forthrightly that they're very optimistic about the success of my treatment.
While I was pleasantly surprised to learn that none of my doctors are yet worried that this thing is going to kill me, I've been equally surprised that the treatment, so far, isn't so bad. Granted, I'm still in the early stages, and the road ahead is long, but two weeks into it, I can still honestly say that I feel good. No significant side effects from the radiation/chemo yet, other than a creeping fatigue that's starting to appear. I expect that to increase, but not to become debilitating. I won't lose my hair and I won't necessarily suffer from terrible nausea with this particular chemotherapy drug (which is Fluorouracil, or 5-FU, if you're wondering). I've seen dozens of other patients in the radiation oncology and chemo infusion waiting rooms, and while a few of them are clearly tired and frail, most of them look pretty ordinary. When people wait together with friends or relatives, sometimes I can't tell which person is the patient. I take that as a good sign that cancer treatment doesn't have to be debilitating.
So here's the thing. A lot of people have cancer. A lot of people are living with it. A lot of it is preventable, which is a topic for another time (but I'll say one more time: if you've been putting off a mammogram, a colonoscopy, a Pap smear, a prostate exam - make an appointment NOW). One day, you may face this yourself, and if that happens, don't panic. You may be in for a rough road, but you will almost certainly meet someone else who's already traveled that road and can help you along.
And when you're finished, and well again, you will appreciate life in a way you didn't before.