Thursday, November 29, 2007

The "C" Word

We recently found out that a very good friend of ours has cancer. It’s in her lungs and has spread to her spine. In an instant, her life has completely changed. Less than one month ago she was doing standup comedy, making people laugh. Now she can barely walk because of the medication she’s taking, she cannot drive, she has no appetite and needs someone to take care of her 24/7.

Cancer has probably affected everyone’s life in one form or another. My first encounter with the disease was when my mother died of breast cancer in 1966, when I was eight years old. They didn’t know much about how to cure it back then. She was in the hospital for at least two years before she died, and she wouldn’t let us visit her there. She didn’t want us to see her that way. I was so young I didn’t really know what it was. That was my first experience with the “c” word.

As we approach the big age of 50, more and more people in our immediate circle of friends and acquaintances are getting cancer. And the reaction is always the same. Everyone is hush-hush and doesn’t want to talk about it. It’s like the one who’s ailing is already dead. Friends cry and ask if there’s anything they can do, but in most cases there isn’t. And no one will say the actual word. They say things like “illness” and “disease” or stuff like “they’re battling it” or “going through some tough times health-wise.” No one wants to say the “c” word.

It changes the way you think about life when someone you know gets cancer. Since we found out about our friend getting lung cancer, I’ve thought a lot about my life. The other day, I felt a strong urge to tell my overbearing boss to kiss my butt. I have that urge almost every time we talk, but this time I almost did it. Yesterday I told someone the truth about something when in the past I would have avoided it or sugar-coated it. I’m taking longer walks with my dogs. I’m watching more cartoons. I broke some rather loud wind at the grocery store this weekend. I yelled at a phone solicitor who calls me every other day. I jaywalked. I even took that little tag off of my mattress, risking considerable jail time and a substantial fine. I don’t care anymore about the stupid little things that used to concern me. Life is too short.

And why is it that only nice people get cancer? Have you ever noticed that? A-holes and jerks don’t get cancer. Why is that? Does a bad attitude and an evil personality help to fight off cancer?

And now I’m getting paranoid about getting cancer myself. What’s that lump on my neck? Why won’t that little rash on my arm go away? Sometimes I get a sore throat. I have a stomach ache right now, in fact – probably from worrying about whether or not I have cancer.

What’s amazing is that most people don’t really know what cancer is or what causes it. All they know about the “c” word is that it’s bad and they don’t want it. So, I looked it up in Wikipedia and this is what it said: “Cancer is a group of diseases in which cells are aggressive (grow and divide without respect to normal limits), invasive (invade and destroy adjacent tissues) and sometimes metastatic (spread to other locations in the body.)”

Cancer causes about 13% of all deaths. Things like tobacco smoke, radiation, chemicals or infectious agents can cause cancer. Men are most likely to get prostate cancer (33% of all cancer cases in males); lung cancer (13%); bladder cancer (7%) or cutaneous melanoma (5%). Women are more prone to getting breast cancer (32%); lung cancer (12%); colorectal cancer (11%); or ovarian cancer (6%). Obviously, cancer is not picky and will attack any organ or part of the body at any given time.

Cancer can be treated by surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, monoclonal antibody therapy or other methods, depending on the location and grade of the tumor and the stage of the disease.

The most important way to treat cancer is to catch it early. That’s why regular check-ups are so important. I hate going to the doctor just like everyone else – but, you gotta do it -- especially after age 40.

What’s my point? I don’t really know. I just think people should be more aware of this disease and not so deathly afraid of discussing it. They need to stop dancing around it. Opening up an ongoing dialogue about the “c” word is the healthiest way to deal with it, I believe. One day we’ll hopefully figure out how to beat it, but until then, it’s here and it’s real.

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