My Long Relationship With Cancer

Cancer is probably the worst thing a person can experience.  Most people are lucky enough not to know someone with cancer.  I, unfortunately, am not one of them.

I was ten years old when my cousin, Michael, died of cancer, specifically a mass in his brain.  He went from being a very active teen to being bed ridden in just a few months.  After several painful and body wasting treatments, he passed at the young age of thirteen.  So began my relationship with this horrible disease.  To my cousin’s credit, he resigned himself to his fate early.  He bravely told his doctors to try anything, not for him, but to learn so they could help other children.  I have always been humbled by his willingness to go through so much to help others he would never meet.

Since my cousin’s death, there have been several others I have known that have dealt with cancer in some form.  Breast, liver, lung, and even bone marrow cancers have affected friends and family.  Some treatments have thankfully been successful, but not all.

Just for children, over 175,000 are diagnosed with cancer worldwide each year.  Around 13,500 children are diagnosed with cancer in the US in that time.  In total, nearly 1.7 million new cancer diagnoses happen each year in the US.  That is just slightly less than the population of Wyoming, Washington DC, and Vermont.

Throughout the world, about 14 million people learn they have cancer and 8 million people die from the disease each year.  If you took every person in the Caribbean except Haiti and the Dominican Republic, there would still be almost 4 million people receiving a cancer diagnosis.  If you take away Puerto Rico, you would have the rest of those island nations all dead every year.

One of the biggest obstacles to cancer treatment is discovery.  The longer cancer has time to establish, the harder it is to combat.  While newer scanning techniques are being created all the time, most people don’t seek some kind of treatment until things have advanced, usually due to some weird pain or unexplained lump on their body.

Another hurdle in cancer treatment is the physical toll on a person’s body.  Immune systems are compromised, motor functions are impaired, and many vital nutrients are used up.  Sometimes control of bladder and bowel are compromised.  There is a large fatigue factor for many patients, and terrible nausea often results.  Adding to the physical pain, very often people lose their hair, which can be emotionally difficult.  These things are often exacerbated by a person’s age, either being very old or very young.   Also very daunting is that cancer treatment can weaken other parts of the body and make it more susceptible to cancer in the future.

Cancer doesn’t just hurt the patient either.  Loved ones and friends must often watch someone they care about become a wasted shell of their former self, sometimes barely recognizable for the person they once were.  For myself, I can remember helpless feelings several times, being able to do little to nothing to bring some comfort to a person dear to me who is clearly suffering.

One of the biggest problems facing cancer patients, especially in poorer countries, is the enormous cost of the treatments.  For many, treatment is also hundreds if not thousands of miles from home, with no reasonable way to travel where help can be had.  Millions die from cancer each year simply because of economics beyond their control.

From personal experience, I have learned the best thing those of us who have a loved one with cancer can do is to keep up hope, and pray a lot.  Lewis Black made a great statement about dealing with a loved one with cancer in his book, Me of Little Faith.  He said, “…I did what I could at the time, and as I have learned, you can always do more – you just can’t ever do enough.”  Basically, some days may seem hopeless.  But you can at least give whatever hope you can to the one you love that is suffering.  Don’t beat yourself up over what you can’t do, just do the things that you can.  You may or may not have some kind of religion or faith in your life, but if you really have love for a person, you put that hope out there for them to hold on to while they grapple with the scariest thing any person can face.  

There are people I know right now facing this specter that is cancer.  And each in their own way is bravely pushing forward to what I pray is healthier times.  There are many others I don’t know living the same ordeal.  And as I have since I was ten, I pray each day for everyone who has cancer, asking to ease their suffering in some way and that they feel the hope that I am sending.  I hope anyone reading this will do the same.

One Response to My Long Relationship With Cancer

  1. Thank you for writing this, Shane. Having recently been through cancer treatment I can say that it’s a great shock to see just how many people are coping with cancer. Along with all the people I saw when I went in for my treatments, virtually everyone I spoke to seemed to have either been through some kind of cancer therapy, or to know someone who has.
    One of the other ‘side effects’ of a cancer illness that you didn’t mention is the possible loos of friends. This may sound unbelievable but I heard this from my cousin and, according to the counselor I’ve been seeing at the Cancer Society here in Wellington, it’s actually often the case: that people – even close friends – will distance themselves when they hear you’ve been diagnosed. Whatever the reason – out of a feeling of helplessness, or some strange sense of superstition (as though it might be ‘unlucky’ or ‘catching’) – it can really hurt. I was fortunate not to have this happen. My friends have all been so wonderfully supportive that I couldn’t ask for more. All I can say is, if someone close to you is going through this awfulness, please stick with them – there’s never a time when they’ll need their family and friends more than now.

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