This is not your typical cancer post.
For starters, I don’t have a happy ending for you, because the stories haven’t ended. Cancer posts always seem to start with a tearful diagnosis and end in thanksgiving for the life lived and modern medicine. They always proclaim the memories that will live on, long after the eyes have shut.
And they will. But this post isn’t like that. I don’t want to sing out praises for the time people have had on Earth or the medicine that extends it. I want to talk about where patients I love are right now and what we’re going to do to help others like them.
I want my loved ones to be here for more birthdays, more sunrises, more laughs. I don’t want to settle for what we’ve accomplished so far- I want to push us forward, dragging the nation’s hearts behind me if necessary. I want to force all those drug trials to just start working together and find a damn cure that’s more reliable!
I want to do something.
I was talking to a teacher that I’m close with a few weeks ago about a prejudiced comment another teacher had made and the incorrect terminology that her notes were laden with. (Note: “Mental retardation” is no longer an accurate medical term. And there are many different types of intelligence. Don’t make me dislike you.) I spent a solid ten minutes ranting off facts about the bill that changed the terms in question and several more screaming about the attitude the crappy teacher displayed when I brought up my concerns. Fifteen minutes later, the lovely teacher I was talking to asked me if I felt better after venting. I turned slowly to face her and then burst out laughing.
“Why on Earth would that make me feel better?” I asked. “I haven’t done a thing to fix it yet! But I will. I’m going to my guidance officer and getting notes for future years changed next period.” (Which I did.)
This cancer post is like that. I could just write about how awful it is to see your loved ones wither away or how important it is to celebrate the survivors, but that wouldn’t do a thing for the people that continue to fight.
I want to celebrate, remember and FIGHT BACK alongside them.
Sometimes we forget that last part. Sometimes we forget the millions that will continue to be diagnosed, even after our loved ones have been “cured” or passed on.
We forget the people we don’t know that are still fighting today.
I’m standing next to her hospital bed as my grandmother struggles with cancer. While she fights the pain courageously, I’m holding out pictures and sharing stories.
“This is from Confirmation, Grandma.” I explain softly. “And here’s the Ceili. That was my dance partner. Isn’t she sweet? She’s been there for eight years.”
Soon I’m hugging her tiny, frail body gently and kissing her cheek goodnight. “God. One of these days I’ll wake up and…” I don’t finish the thought.
The next morning we’re getting everyone breakfast and I’m cleaning dishes, humming softly in the all-too-silent house. I try the Stations of the Cross hymn. I try Hey There, Delilah. I try my own little melody. Nothing seems to fill the void. It’s too vast for some silly, little notes to close it.
Eventually I walk out. I go to pick strawberries from the garden and dice them so my grandmother can taste their sweetness. “This is summer. She has to taste the sunshine,” I think as I help her with the bowl.
She smiles slightly at me and points out the bright red geranium peering into the window pane by her bed. I ask her if that’s her favorite flower, suddenly realizing all the little questions I don’t know the answers to. She tells me she likes the way it seems to survive through anything.
“Those flowers last,” she adds quietly.
I like it when beauty lasts, too…
Friend, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Well, obviously it is (it’s all in God’s plan, right?), but it’s beyond understanding. She already had cancer over ten years ago. She survived so much. She fought it once and won, but doesn’t intend to go through it all again. She’s come to peace with it and is gently leading her loved ones to that tranquility.
“You’ll do great things,” she promises, willing us to believe.
“I love you,” she whispers in our ears.
Who knew how much weight three words can hold?
Still, I can tell she’s disappointed by everything she’s going to miss- the first grandchild’s marriage, being a great grandmother, my graduation. Her disease came so suddenly. She went into the doctor for something totally unrelated and was sent to the ER. A few weeks later, how quickly things have progressed…
Friends, this is why I relay.
Because I hate goodbyes and there are too many of them.
Because it shouldn’t have to be this way. Our survivors should stay…surviving. Cancer shouldn’t be able to reappear and turn lives upside down all over again. It shouldn’t ever come back fighting like this.
Because sometimes we need to make our own miracles.
An eighteen year old walks down the aisle at the barn, hand outstretched to grasp the stall doors.
“Are you okay, Sandra?” I call over.
“Yeah. Just a little dizzy…” she mutters.
“Do you need a drink or a chair or anything?”
She looked up into my eyes. “No. It’s just from treatment,” she explains calmly.
Sandra has leukemia. Her “treatment” is chemotherapy and radiation.
This is why I relay.
Because explaining cancer treatment side effects shouldn’t be a no-big-deal conversation for a teenager. Because prom dress shopping and chemo don’t belong on the same person’s to do list. High school is when you bargain with your parents about curfew, not plead with God for your life.
The thing about cancer is that it doesn’t discriminate. Sure there are groups that are more prone to certain types, but those ranges aren’t definite. Cancer can and will attack whomever it pleases. You can’t bribe it away or close your eyes and hope it walks past you. That’s not how life works (or death as the case may be). Cancer is a witch. She’ll take the saints and the sinners and leave all their families to weep. Even the survivors are marked in ways only they can understand. The memories. The scars. The fear it will return. (This isn’t the Hunger Games, friends. You can get ‘picked’ again.)
I want a world with more birthdays – and a lot less pain and fear. I want a world where blood test results don’t feel like death sentences and cancer is a tragedy of the past like the Black Plague.
And I’m so, so ready to fight for it.
I strongly encourage you to find your local Relay for Life (only a US thing, sorry international, friends- but there may be similar opportunities near you!) and participate in it in any way possible. Whether you can help organize a bake sale to raise money for the American Cancer Society or walk at the event, every effort counts to the families and individuals affected. And pray. Everyone. Please pray. If you could find a new cure or scream at some drug companies for me, that would be great, too, but I’ll take what I can get.