Monday, August 2, 2010

For Life

What are you doing next weekend? I’m going to walk around a high school track, something I haven’t done since I was in high school. I have to get up pretty early in the morning to do it too, have to be there before 8 am. This is almost unheard of for me, the early rising thing on the weekend. But I have a lot of reasons to do it.

My friend Nancy is participating at the Relay for Life in our town. She’s going to walk. She’s going to have a booth with fundraiser items to help with the cause. The cause? Finding cures for cancer. It’s a big goal.

If your family hasn’t been touched by cancer, I would be really surprised. It’s not just one disease. There are many types like lung cancer or skin cancer, and even within those types many subtypes. Some of them respond well to treatment, some of them not so well so far. The chances of prolonged survival are much, much better than they used to be. But there is still so much to learn, so much to do.

My doctor’s office just called me this morning and scheduled me for a mammogram. Yes, I hate them. Having parts of me so sensitive, so near and dear to my heart, squashed flat enough to get a good low-level x-ray to detect something going wrong at its earliest stages doesn’t feel good. Shut your finger in the car door some time and have someone ask you to be still while they take your picture. It’s a good thing they don’t ask me to smile, too. But I appreciate the value of early detection.

You see, my mom died of breast cancer. So did her mom. Her sister didn’t. I don’t have any sisters from my mother’s side; my sisters are half-sisters from my father’s side. So I don’t have a lot of personal family anecdotal information to go on. But in the generation above me, 50% is a frightening number.

Recently on Facebook, some cyber-taggers were posting rude comments on the The Breast Cancer Site’s page. It made me sad. I wasn’t moved to call the brats names like some did. But it did move me to post my feelings, “My mom died of breast cancer. I really miss her a lot. There are days I want to pick up the phone and tell her how my day went or ask her if she liked a TV show I saw. Her mother died of the same thing. I've lived most of my life now wondering if I would die from this too. I make jokes about a lot of things, but not this. If you think you would miss your mom if she died, please try to help find a cure.”

I remember when a special genetic testing study was advertising for volunteers years ago. I was excited about this and thought long and hard about the implications of knowing a tendency v. not knowing. The study was being conducted locally by a group led by one of the big name researchers, so I called them. I explained the similarities in the progress of my mother’s disease compared to her mother’s, a strong correlation. The research assistant was excited and thought I would be a great candidate for their study. “All you need,” she explained, “is a genetic sample like a swab from you and one from your mother.”

I was speechless for a moment. “Mom died in 1983,” I said. Suddenly, I was no longer a lab rat to the research assistant. See, the problem with this cancer stuff is that it can play for keeps. So, I didn’t qualify for the study and I didn’t get genetic testing.

I didn’t have long to wait for an answer for my own experience with cancer. A little over 10 years ago, I started having some strange problems, problems like I had never had before. I figured I was peri-menopausal, disappointing because my husband and I were hoping for a last-minute baby of our own. But the symptoms got weirder, including something like an allergic reaction or anaphylaxis. I went to the doctor, went through some tests, some painful, and they concluded that I needed surgery, even if it wasn’t cancer. 90% chance it’s not cancer even before the tests, they had said anyway. My medical professionals are pretty thorough. They tested for cancer several times, even while I was on the operating table. Whew, good news, they said. But the last test, the test after surgery for a thorough look through what they removed was different. I got a call the day before Christmas, uterine cancer.

Good news, it was very, very early and with surgery is a nearly 100% cure. Bad news, they did the wrong surgery. I was utterly terrified. If they had known at the time, they would have taken more parts out, just to be sure. Now I had to decide whether to go in for more surgery, a decision I had to make during some of the most painful post-operative moments, or gamble with my life that they had gotten everything. More than ten years later, it appears my gamble paid off. They say I’m cured.

That doesn’t mean I’m off the hook for the rest of my life. The fact that somewhere, somehow some part of me started creating cells at a runaway pace, the basic definition of cancer, means that I really need to watch my immune system. It means it could happen somewhere else in my body again. As my doctor put it, I’ve been on the bad side of good odds at least once before. It happens. So I get all the flu shots and take other precautions. But the simple fact is that cancer isn’t just one thing. Paying attention to one aspect of your health isn’t going to guarantee anything. But paying attention helps because catching it early helps a lot. That’s just one of the reasons I think everyone should have access to good medical care.

Of course, it’s not just me. My nephew is a survivor. My brother-in-law is recovering from difficult treatment, still learning to swallow again. My sister-in-law just got a prosthesis after her mastectomy and looks fabulous, dahling! I loved seeing our friend Karen again recently who’s not just surviving but going on a quilting cruise. The gentle giant Tui who painted our house is getting his color back nicely now even though he may never sing the same as he used to in our church’s Tongan choir. Our dear friend Gerry’s best friend since grade school is a survivor too. Sister Adele is still in charge of facilities and is still She Who Must Be Obeyed, in a good-natured way.

I miss my step-mom who was gone in a flash to lung cancer, never a cigarette in her life.  I miss my co-worker Libby who, after surgery and radiation, whipped her wig off in a business meeting as a gag, to the shock and delight of the participants. I miss Pam with her long legs and long hair and dry, dry wit helping us all get through the worst possible technology projects with a laugh. I miss our family friend Christine who inspired other women to live as much as you can as long as you can and have tea, too. I miss “Enterprise” John, the irreverent rugby player who received a bone marrow transplant but could not beat the dragon in the end. There are too many more. And I miss Mom.

So when Nancy asked me to help her with her computer set up for Relay for Life, I was happy to. It was something small. And when she said, “Well, you’re coming out there on August 7, aren’t you?” I had to say yes to that, too. It only makes sense. I realize that I represent hope to people who are afraid because I beat it, at least so far. That’s important for people to know.

Get in touch with your own Ace of Cups. Your contributions do help. Your efforts do help. Volunteer. Donate. Click for free mammograms for women who don’t have adequate health care. Be a triathlete in Team-in-Training to raise money for The Leukemia-Lymphoma Society. Get tested for Be the Match bone marrow registry. Pay attention to your own health: Know the signs. Be a pal to someone who is going through their fight. You’ll know the right thing to do. It’s for life.

See you at the track.


Nancy’s Relay for Life Donation Site:

Click for Free Mammograms:


Be The Match:

Want more ideas on how you can help? Visit The American Cancer Society.

Best wishes!


  1. Dear Marcia,
    Wow. This post brought tears to my eyes and got me thinking...

  2. Thanks for your kind words. It was truly awe-inspiring to walk with so many survivors. I hope you and others will do all you can to help.

    Best wishes.