Sunday, March 13, 2011

When Cancer is a Family Affair

By Linda Timmerman, Ed.D.

According to a report from the CDC, there are nearly 12 million cancer survivors in the U.S. today.

That's 12 million people seeking "new normal" in their lives. Twelve million journeys. Twelve million stories.

Every cancer survivor is an individual, and no two journeys are alike.

My family of cancer survivors is a microcosm of those 12 million courageous souls.

My 86-year-old Dad approached his diagnosis of bladder cancer some 20 years ago the way he has always approached life: philosophically and through scripture. Ask about his cancer and he'll respond: "It happens. My God is in control, and I don't worry about it."

He does, however, think deeply about his cancer.

Shortly after he had completed his three-year maintenance protocol of BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guerin, an inactivated form of the bovine tuberculosis virus that is instilled into the bladder to elicit an immune response), he called me and asked, "now that my treatment is over -- do I tell people I HAD cancer, or do I say I HAVE cancer?"

He's deeply interested in knowing how he got bladder cancer in the first place: he was a smoker for a number of years, but hadn't smoked in over 25 years when diagnosed. He was a dairy farmer exposed to pesticides and chemicals virtually every day.

Truthfully, it was Dad who found an article about BCG in Reader's Digest in 1991, took it to his urologist, and said, "they say this is a fairly new and promising treatment for bladder cancer -- can we try it?" It worked for him -- he's been in remission almost 20 years.

Today, BCG is still the gold standard for immunotherapy for bladder cancer.

Dad spends hours pondering the fact that I, his only daughter (who is still 16 years old in his mind), has bladder cancer and that having a first degree relative with bladder cancer is a risk factor.

"How did I pass that on to you?" he'll ask. Is there some test your children can take to see if they carry the gene?

My Mom, on the other hand, approached her journey with fear and trepidation. Mom is the official family worrier. She called me one day to say that she was so worried, "things are going so well, I just know something bad's about to happen."

Mom thought her lung cancer diagnosis meant certain death.

She grew up in that era. She and I were both there when her mother, my grandmother, died -- drowning in her own fluids from breast cancer that had metastasized to the lungs.

Mom didn't know many survivors in her life.

Mom never came to see me when I was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She just couldn't. And  I completely understood.

To this day, Mom can't believe that her cancer is gone. "All they did was remove the upper left lobe of my lung," she'll say. "The doctors say I didn't need chemo. It'll probably come back."

She has to worry. I completely understand.

My husband approaches his cancer stoically. He has had three melanomas, but rarely talks about it and doesn't want anyone to "make a big deal" of it. He has a skin condition that requires him to use ultra-violet light therapy weekly. It has to worry him that he exposes his skin to UVB light, but he does it without complaint.

He is vigilant. He visits his dermatologist regularly and uses sun screen religiously.

He and I faced our biggest fear two years ago when his daughter, my step-daughter, was diagnosed with a liposarcoma in her leg. This was different for our family: she was too young, and the mother of young children.

The biopsy was clear, but pathology on the very large tumor showed that approximately one-third of the mass was cancerous. They couldn't remove all of the tumor without removing her leg.

She is teaching us how to use humor to cope. She respects the disease, and she knows that she must be followed closely for the rest of her life. She will do what it takes to thrive and survive.

I cope by being involved.

I participate in cancer "causes," -- Relay for Life, the Koman Breast Cancer 3-Day walk, I attend a support group for bladder cancer survivors, I speak to groups, I counsel fellow survivors, I raise money for cancer research, and I blog.

I use this involvement to find my "new normal." I use it to challenge the disease that has invaded my life and the life of people I hold dear: my husband, child, mom, and dad. My prayer is that my children and grandchildren will never have to battle this disease in any form.

12 Million Survivors. 12 Million journeys. 12 Million ways to cope. It's a good thing. It gives me hope.

Linda Timmerman, Ed. D. is a two-time cancer survivor and life long educator. She blogs regularly about cancer survival and real information from real people with the disease.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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