Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Being disease free does not mean being free of the disease

You're out of the woods
You're out of the dark
You're out of the night
Step into the sun, step into the light
--Lyrics from “The Wizard of Oz”

A well-meaning friend said to me this morning, “It looks like you’re out of the woods.” Strangely, the scene of Dorothy and her pals skipping through a field of poppies immediately came to mind. An interferon flashback? I snorted at his comment, and let it pass. This was not the time or place for a discourse on the psychology of cancer survivorship. I know the comment was made innocently, but it hit a nerve in that it goes to the core of how I’m supposed to live, now that I’m done with treatment.

The fact is, I’m not out of the woods. Survival statistics for people with my cancer staging are daunting. The drug therapy I just finished improves my odds, but not a lot. I live with the knowledge that there’s a reasonable chance the cancer will return. That’s troubling, but it doesn’t paralyze me. I’ve had a lot of time to process the medical probabilities, and to accept their consequences. Acceptance isn’t likely to give way to breezy confidence, however.

There’s a saying in cancer circles that being disease free does not mean being free of the disease. I deal with the emotional and physical toll of cancer treatment every day—not the cancer itself, mind you, but the things done to prevent its return. I ran nine miles on Feb. 24—the day before I had a dozen or so lymph nodes stripped from my groin. At that point, the cancer’s presence had not yet made me sick. Everything I have suffered through since has been done in an earnest attempt to prevent the melanoma from returning. Now that I’m suddenly done with all that, I can begin to deal with the psychological fallout. This is where things quickly get messy.

Forgive me for the use of a double negative, but not only am I not out of the woods, I live in the woods. I mean that in the sense that I have no intention of acting as though nothing has happened, and that I can simply move ahead with my life with good cheer. I want to live robustly and intentionally, and with hope and peace, but not at the price of denying what might lie ahead. Believe it or not, it’s possible to read cancer survival statistics and remain hopeful. There are a lot of other people in those woods, and that is where I believe God wants me—sharing that hope.

As the comment made to me this morning suggests, the cultural expectation for people who have survived serious illness is to “step into the sun” and to shut up about it. Most of us have a deep and abiding need for a universe that’s safe, secure and happy. After all, we’re Americans. We want Beavers who never lose a football game, children who are both smart and good-looking, a stock market that never falls, and good health that lasts forever. We are delusional (especially the part about the Beavers). This world is broken, and so are we. We should recognize this, and treat one another with the care we deserve. Loving others on their terms is a good place to start.

One of the dangers in writing these sentiments is that it might appear that I’m fishing for sympathy. That’s not what I’m after. Sympathy is a weak substitute for personal engagement, in whatever form it takes--spiritual, emotional, intellectual. That’s not just talk about illness and health, but also an exploration of the things that matter most: Who are we? What’s life all about? Why are we here? What issues are of ultimate importance? Where is God when you could really use a break? Little things like that.

Remember that an evil spell was cast upon Dorothy shortly after she came out of the woods that put her into a deep, possibly permanent sleep. I’m hoping for something better. Let’s talk about it, and not brush off my or anyone else’s distress as an intrusion on our peace of mind. Responding realistically and compassionately to the human needs around us is a measure of our humanity.


Anonymous said...

Peter: When you announced the termination of the interferon treatments I found the woods go dark and gloomy. But I have found rays of sun brightening both my dispirited reaction and my hopes for you. We will see better days more and more often- I pray.

NancyB said...


Cheers to you for making us ponder our own purposes here on earth. Love you!


Weighing in from from San Diego, where I imbibed plenty for both of us'

Take care,


Anonymous said...

I didn't think your comments read like a play for sympathy at all. As a "healthy" person I read what you write with eagerness and fear: eagerness to walk with you in what you're learning and fear of the day I will step into the woods as well (btw, it's a great analogy).

Karen B.