Copyright © 1998, Ralph Warrington
Dick listened to Michael's story, rapt, afraid to believe, and afraid to disbelieve, but Michael stood in front of him, talking, calm, alive, and apparently, well.
"Dick, listen: you can't make a life and death decision based on experience from fifteen years ago. New data, research and protocols are coming out all the time. Look at me, just look at me! Maybe I should be dead, or at best paralyzed in a wheel chair. But I'm healthy with no medical restrictions--none."
Dick looked, and he listened. The words, "it's not like it used to be" ran through his mind again and again. Dick learned about Neupogen, a drug to increase the white cell count after chemotherapy. He asked again about Zofran, the medication that buffered the effects of chemo. Slowly, the dark vision of chemotherapy as demon, dragging its victims into a torment worse than the disease itself lessened its grip on him. Hope started crowding into the vacuum left by the departing darkness, and he had talked about it with someone else, someone that understood. Like a man carrying a heavy sack of sand that develops a leak, Dick felt his burden lighten.
That night he told Nancy what he had learned from his meeting with Michael: maybe they were living in the dark ages; maybe chemotherapy wasn't the ogre they thought it was. Nancy listened, watching Dick while he spoke, seeing a flicker of light in his eye that hadn't been there since the day she met him at his office after receiving her diagnosis. It was good to see the light again, and she wanted to keep seeing it, needed to keep seeing it. She couldn't bear to put it out; it would be like throwing water on hot embers in a cold house. Nancy agreed to see an oncologist that week.
After listening closely to her oncologist, weighing what she heard, and stating how she felt every step of the way, Nancy chose treatment. Due in part to her insistence, her entire treatment regimen was outpatient. Nancy approached her therapy as more than a passive participant--she helped plan it. After all, it was her life.
Less than two weeks passed between her diagnosis and her surgery: a lumpectomy. The initial chemotherapy treatment began ten days later. She took six chemo treatments over five months, injecting the chemo herself with a pump she wore to work. Every three weeks she took another treatment, and each treatment spanned a forty eight hour period. When she finished the chemotherapy, she had a break for four weeks until the radiation treatments began. Then, from August 30 to Oct. 30, 1996, she had radiation five days a week. Nancy arranged her radiation treatments so she could have them on her way to work--and didn't miss a day on the job. That wouldn't have been like Nancy.
Nancy credits the nurses and her oncologist for their honesty; no one sugarcoated anything. She knew what was coming every step of the way.
Dick accompanied her for her check-ups, her instruction sessions, and blood tests. He learned to accept responsibility for new roles in his life. Nancy had made one request--that Dick handle the insurance. She knew she didn't need the stress, and Dick went to it with a will, handling the bills, filling out the forms, and learning a new "language" pertaining to diagnosis, treatments, and allowable charges. Dick used his computer to chart every day of Nancy's treatment: her good days, her bad days, her reactions to medication, her rest periods. Keeping a journal was one of Dick's methods of involving himself as much as he could, and Nancy knew she wasn't alone, just as Dick found out he wasn't alone when he met Michael.
Dick learned other things, too. Nancy needed protein, energy. Dick made her a rich drink spiked with raw egg. But someone told him about a disease that was possible among people whose immune systems were depleted and who ate raw eggs. Dick scrubbed the eggshells before cracking them into her drink. Today they both chuckle at Dick's tender juggling of a fresh egg over the sink.
Less than one week after meeting Dick for the first time, Michael heard another tapping at his cubicle. Once again Dick stood there to speak with Michael about Nancy's treatment
"You won't believe what they're doing Mike! You won't believe what happened!" Dick swallowed and took a short breath and went on, "We did just like you said. We found other breast cancer patients who have been through treatment and talked with them. Then we went back to the surgeon and learned even more. Nancy is wearing this little pump on her belt, so she gets treatment automatically all the time. She won't even need to miss any work. She was so afraid she was going to lose her job--but she is able to work!"
When Dick stopped to catch his breath, Michael grinned. He was looking at a new man--a man filled with hope and happiness. Then he said, "I bet your doctor never even knew you two were contemplating not accepting treatment."
Dick's face became stone, then a puzzled look appeared. "You don't understand," he replied, "when the surgeon began describing treatment options, we walked out. We left. We were done."
Stunned and amazed, Michael softly asked, "You walked out? The doctor knew what you were thinking? You just walked out?"
With a strange smile Dick answered, "Yep. That's why we were so upset. We knew she was going to die."
Through a meeting arranged by an acquaintance, a word of mouth association, one friend thinking maybe another friend could help someone by talking, by sharing their story, Dick's perspective changed; Nancy's life took a completely new path, and Michael had a new outlook--one he was soon to need.
Soon after his second meeting with Dick, Michael got his ten-minute meeting with the company president to pitch the peer support proposal to sponsor a consortium. His meetings with Dick had inspired him to speak with life and death passion. He knew this was truly important, and that the opportunity to do something important rarely comes in life.
The ten minutes allocated for Michael's meeting with the president stretched to one hour and ten minutes, with seed finding for Peer Perspectives being allocated. Michael had the opportunity to state that peer support is more than warm and fuzzy encounter--it's about education and ultimately life and death decision making. This aspect of peer support was about to be reinforced in Michael's life.
Within weeks of sharing his story with Dick, Michael was re-diagnosed as having not one kind of lymphoma--but two. He flew to Houston for two kinds of chemotherapy and was at even greater risk than he had been before, because these treatments were in preparation for bone marrow transplants. But again, the combination of spectacular advancements in cancer medicine--changing by the hour--the evolving mystery of the disease itself, and Michael's newly recharged faith in himself--sparked by his meeting Dick and Nancy, yielded results: Michael entered full remission again. And now the prognosis is positive that he will not have to endure a bone marrow transplant. A new treatment has just emerged that may insure Michael's continued well-being without the pain and danger of bone marrow transplant. His encounter with Dick and Nancy, and their ensuing closeness, couldn't have come at a better time.
Nancy has been in complete remission since October 30, 1996. Today Dick and Nancy live in a different house. It's smaller than the one the lived in when Nancy went through her treatment. They wanted less maintenance work, and more time for the things they enjoy--like each other. They are selling their "hot-peach" colored hot rod, a classic beauty lovingly restored, because Nancy says she always wanted a convertible street rod, and they are both looking forward to riding in it, attending hot rod meets with their friends.
Nancy and Dick still hold their same jobs, and they travel more now. But Dick is proudest of a conversation he recently had with a woman whose husband had just been diagnosed with cancer. When he heard of the situation, he called her, just to let her know someone else understood--another spouse of a recently diagnosed person. Her overwhelming gratitude for that phone call and her immediate relief that someone else understood instilled Dick with the fervor and commitment to help anyone he can by sharing his and Nancy's story.
There are two days now in Dick's life that he will never forget, the day Nancy told him she had cancer, and the day he met Michael.
For more information about how cancer survivors can learn to help each other, contact Michael White at firstname.lastname@example.org.