Today’s guest writer shares some thought-provoking beliefs about the journey that is life. Although the specific coping actions he takes may not be for you, the philosophy behind his actions is consistent with themes we try to develop in this blog. His powerful comments are certainly a model for us all to consider.
THE CHALLENGE OF CANCER, SHARED BY A COPING ROLE MODEL
September 28, 2016
My wife and I moved recently to Cocoa Beach, Florida from the Tampa Bay area. We try to make it a point every day to go for a walk to the beach to see the sunrise and greet the new day. That is where we met Charlie Brooks.
After a period of weeks of passing by one another on the beach, he cautiously inquired of the lemon-size growth on the right side of my neck. By now, I am pretty comfortable giving an explanation to those who ask. I said, “It’s a tumor.” I explained my condition further and described a little of how I deal with it.
So how do I cope with stage-four cancer? A good place to start is “one day at a time.”
A little background:
For almost eight years now, I have been dealing with the fact that I have cancer. 2008 was a most difficult and stressful time in my life. After eighteen years of marriage, my wife walked out and began divorce proceedings. Estranged from my young daughters, without friends or family nearby, I felt abandoned in a place I no longer wanted to be. I trudged thru those tumultuous days one at a time, but to be honest, I really was not coping very well with everyday life.
In December 2008, I came down with the flu or what I would describe as flu-like symptoms (the apartment I moved into weeks before had a very bad mold and mildew problem and may have contributed to my illness). Both my glands on my neck swelled and were very sore. After several weeks I regained my health but the gland on my right side of my neck never returned to its normal size. I did research on what might be the cause and how to self-treat it, but for the most part I ignored it believing it would go away in time (like everything else, this too shall pass).
As a spiritual person (I had served as a minister for twelve years), I had been praying that something has to change in my life. I was mentally and physically tired. This change would either have to come from beyond my control or from within myself. I made some changes in my life to help cope. I returned to congregational worship on Sundays. I spent time at the local library searching their music collection, listening to music and reading books. I also set up a Facebook account.
In March 2009, I received an email from a former girlfriend of whom I had not had contact with since I was a teenager (answer to prayer?). What was really strange is that I had not reached out to her and she had no idea where I was in my life. We spent hours on the phone rekindling our relationship which began some 32 years earlier. I made the decision to relocate to Florida where she was living. Four months later we were married and have been inseparable ever since. She has been my sunshine helping me cope with everyday life.
The growth on my neck.
It took some time to settle in, to become employed and to obtain health insurance. During that time, the growth continued to develop. In 2011, I decided to go to an ear, nose and throat doctor (Otolaryngologist), who also performs head and neck surgery. I had several tests run, the results of which revealed I had non-small cell carcinoma (squamous cell). “It is malignant,” he said. My heart dropped. These were words I never thought I would hear concerning my life. So now what? Where do we go from here?
The doctor explained his next steps to treat the cancer. The protocol involved another test, then undergoing surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Regarding the surgery, he said he may have to remove a portion of my tongue, my voice box, and part of my jaw bone which would require reconstructive surgery. He added, “You will also have to learn to eat and speak again. Even so, you are looking at a possible five-year life expectancy.” He actually gave the odds of life expectancy but I no longer remember what he said. I do not believe they were in my favor. I left his office devastated by the results and distraught over his medical recommendations (his bedside manner was lacking to say the least).
I returned home, sat down with my wife, and explained to her what the doctor said. That night was pretty much a blur as far as remembering our feelings, emotions and words. As for me, I now had some medical answers for my condition. What was left to do was to decide how to proceed.
I gave myself a few days to mull over the doctor’s words and allow things to settle in my mind. I held off telling my daughters, family, and employers until I could come to a resolution. Life at this point hadn’t really changed. My wife loved me. I was working, and doing all the things I did prior to learning of my prognosis. But internally, I was grieving and going through a grief process. I sought to compartmentalize the cancer, dealing with my thoughts and feelings a little at a time. Even now, this seems to be, in part, how I cope with my condition. It is not something I think about all the time. The bottom line was and is acceptance of the fact that I have been diagnosed with a malignant form of cancer.
It was really the decision-making process that helped form my ability to cope with cancer. Knowing what I have is not enough to put my mind at ease. What do I do about it and to what degree or cost am I willing to subject myself, my wife and family to in order to gain some sense of well-being? Thus began a journey of researching and discovering my options from Western to Eastern medicine. This was not just a medical experience, but a very personal human event.
Having been a minister for twelve years, generally working with congregations with older members, I witnessed first-hand the results of cancer-treatments in different parts of the country. Part of ministry is meeting people at their most critical times of their lives and being of service to them. However, for the most part, I was less than thrilled with their outcomes. This was not about their faith experience, but the physical struggles they experienced during and after treatment, not to mention the great cost of medical expenses incurred by those families.
Many would confide in me that if their cancer returned, they would not undergo the treatment again. I thought to myself, “If this is the best this country has to offer, I’ll pass.” I developed a mind-set then and still refer back to it to help cope with everyday life and that is, there is a difference between quality of life vs. quantity of life (live well vs. live long). I believe it is within our nature to strive for both, but when our failing physical health becomes a factor in determining length of life, the quality of life becomes primary. I should also state at this time, that my mother had died of pancreatic cancer. She began to undergo chemotherapy but discontinued the treatment due to the side effects. The treatment would not be a cure and she had only months to live. I remember one of her last words she spoke to me. She said, she never thought her life would end this way.
With the full support of my wife, I decided I would not pursue nor undergo surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. I did attempt to have only the tumor removed without undergoing the other treatments, but no doctor I contacted would consider doing so due to liability.
I emailed the doctor I originally received my diagnosis from and informed him I had chosen not to undergo cancer treatment. I received an email from him, telling me, “Good luck, you’ll be dead within three months.” I did not respond and it only made me more determined to pursue other forms of treatment.
I should note that this response is not just tied to western medicine physicians. One alternative medicine doctor suggested to me that I should quit work and spend my days meditating near a pond and contemplate life. He may have meant well, but to me, that was the same as saying, why don’t you just resign yourself to the fact that you are going to die. Just curl up and wait to die.
Over the years since being first diagnosed, I have undergone several forms of alternative medicine treatments (cost is always a factor, as health insurance does not cover alternative medicine). There are many different forms of treatments available outside the U.S., but the cost, time away from work, travel, and treatment, make these unattainable for most.
I take a daily regimen of supplements (thanks to my wife), exercise and try to keep stress in my life at a minimal. Up until a few months ago, I was working sixty-three hours a week. I have reduced the number of hours to forty per week in order to pursue other personal interests. Whether or not any or all of this has contributed to beating the statistical odds, I do not know. What I do know is I am still here and living as normal a life as I did prior to the diagnosis. In fact, in a very real sense, I feel more alive than I did then. I do not take life for granted, but enjoy each and every moment of life and the good measure of health I have been blessed with on this day.
Some thoughts for me on my coping with everyday life –
1. Faith in God. I know not what tomorrow holds, but I know who holds tomorrow. God knows my life and nothing comes to me that does not first go through Him. I’m not seeking a miracle healing, though I desire to be healed in this life, but if healing doesn’t come, God is still God, and I will return to Him.
2. Connections between people and not possessions are what matters most.
3. Having an attitude of gratitude, thanksgiving, appreciation and forgiveness.
4. There is a song by Randy Stonehill. The lyrics state, “I’m gonna celebrate this heartbeat, cause it just might be my last. Every day is a gift from the Lord on high, and they all go by so fast.”
5. The only difference between my life and another is that I may know what I will die from. I say may because not even this is a guarantee.
6. The only things I have control over are my thoughts – what I believe — and my actions – what I do and how I respond based upon what I believe. Beyond that, things are beyond my control. It is enough.