A Very Personal Essay (Some Thoughts on Cancer)

Last Modified: November 1, 2001

Copyright © 1998, James Pharis, Jr.

Here are some random thoughts about cancer in general and and what I think I have observed in my own nine years of surgery, recovery, and chemo. Those who have been riding that tiger formany years surely have a sense of its presence that is different from the sense with which those with fewer years' experience regard it.

It occurs to me that when cancer first is diagnosed that it is a challenge to know that the illness is cancer. Some can't even say the word for a few months. Some become angry and feel that they have been betrayed, because they think that they don't deserve to be saddled with that monster. Some have expressed anger at God for permitting them to have cancer. Some have told me they are angry at the world. Some even stay in a posture of denial that it's not really cancer, and that it will all be made well, or it will be discovered that it was a mis-diagnosis. This sort of delusion has been observed to last for several years with some.

Some others just accept "the death sentence" and die. Not all who die have given up. There are too many whom I personally know that have died in spite of everything that could be done by them and for them, emotionally and medically. It seems to me that we have to accept the fact that cancer is not an immediately solvable illness, but it's more nearly so than it has been at any time in medical history. Recently I have read that those with religious faith have a better time of it than those who do not. One of the remarkable pieces I read was to the effect that when people pray for those with cancer that those with cancer improve, even if they don't know there are people praying for them.

It seems to me that more practical people, those who don't accept the "death sentence" as soon as they are aware of the diagnosis, first try to find out everything they can about their own cancer. This has a number of benefits for the patient. One important thing it does, it permits the patient to be "more treatable" than a person who chooses to remain uninformed, or a person who is in denial. The process of learning has not ended for me since my first diagnosis and due to the changing knowledge that is available, it probably won't end in the foreseeable future.

It impresses me that the first time a medicine or a medical procedure is tried it is not perfect. We all benefit from those who have preceded us in the cancer journey before we were diagnosed, and those who come after us will be benefited by our experience. This is true both from the medical standpoint and from the patient's understanding of the nature of the disease and how to manage it. Neither we, nor our physicians are to be held accountable for perfection.

In the cancer experience, learning about other people, their fears, strengths and concerns is a continuous process. Just learning about them gives us a sense of compassion for them, and helps us relate to them in a way in which only humans are capable. We don't shoot our wounded. We try to comfort and strengthen them. In some way which I don't understand we take on their hurts in such a way that they are made easier for the ones who are suffering. It isn't a masochistic manipulation of the relationship, but an opening of communication that says we understand. That consciousness of understanding gives strength to others without weakening ourselves. I believe it really makes all involved stronger.

In the process of learning all we can about our disease, all we can about others and their problems with cancer, we begin to learn more about ourselves. We learn that we have capabilities that we did not know existed. We have become, because of cancer and our associations with others in the same boat, equipped to comprehend some things that we were not equipped to comprehend before our diagnosis and before our association with other cancer patients. I have said more than once to friends, that I am not foolish enough to be thankful for cancer, but I am thankful for some of the lessons it has taught me. I think I know myself better now than I did nine years ago when I was diagnosed. Thankfully, I truly believe I am a better person in some ways. My physical condition is considerably less desirable than it was before I was first diagnosed, but my spiritual dimension has grown.

I have condensed this concept to say; "First we learn all we can about our disease, then we learn about others, and in the process we learn about ourselves". Maybe that's true.

It would be foolish to think that a person could ignore known science and treatment and think himself into wellness. It is also foolish to think that known science knows everything there is about cancer. The medical community is growing in scientific knowledge. We are growing in our self determination by realizing that a positive approach to life benefits us in our treatment. A positive attitude may not cure the disease, but it goes a long way toward curing the person.

My masculinity is not threatened by my hugging another whom I have come to love and by telling others that I love them. This happens more and more with cancer patients. Now it is easier for me to accept the expression of compassion and love that comes with the physical touch than it was before cancer. It's an acceptance of what others feel, and I hope that I will never be callow or negative toward those who express something words can't say, in this fashion. It was a little surprising to some of my physicians to get a hug from me as the patient, but I have related to them as close friends. It seemed easier for the ladies to accept, as two of my surgeons are, than for the men to accept the first time I hugged them.

Writing helps me define things that I think about and I encourage fellow patients to write down their feelings and doubts and fears. None is too dreadful for us as patients to examine, even if we don't do it for others. It does us good to express ourselves, even if it is just to ourselves. One time a wise counselor said "do some creative writing on that subject".

I am full of advice to cancer patients that I will withhold out of consideration for you in the event this is ever read by anyone other than me. Dialogue is a matter of receiving from others and giving a part of ourselves to those with whom we converse. It is my desire to never regress to the point that I am afraid that exposing my thoughts and feelings will make me less in my own eyes or in the eyes of those who hear or read what I happen to say. It is my desire that others will not be lessened in their self-concept by what they communicate, but will discover the joy of greater realization by "some creative writing on that subject".

Also see OncoLink Poetry: Celebration, an inspirational poem by James Pharis.