Sunday, March 6, 2011

The First Time I Was Told I Might Have Cancer

The first time I was told I might have cancer was in 1973. I was a junior in high school, and had seen a specialist because of severe pain in a part of my body I really wanted to keep. The specialist said that it looked like I had a tumor, it might be cancerous, but if he had to remove my body part that I could still have “a normal life.” I don’t recall any sympathy or empathy as he delivered those lines to me. It was more of “this is the way it is, kid, deal with it.”
A few days later when I woke up after surgery, I looked at the bandages and wondered what was there and what was missing. It was a while before I heard the good news that I did not have cancer and still had all my body parts. I remember feeling relieved and grateful, but it didn’t become a turning point in my life after which I dedicated myself to smelling the roses everyday and all that kind of stuff. It had all happened pretty fast, and I didn’t have a lot of time before the surgery to ponder what cancer might have meant to me. Although my physical activity was restricted, within a few days I was back at school, going to class, doing homework, laughing with my friends, and doing all the kinds of things a 16 year old does.
The second time I was told I might have cancer was just over two weeks ago. I had been under the care of physical therapists and a sports medicine specialist for a pain in my left leg that just wouldn’t go away. The original diagnosis was a hamstring injured while running which turned out to be an accurate yet incomplete assessment. I was under treatment for most of the fall and into the winter before the specialist decided to order an MRI.
Two days after the MRI, I met with the specialist and a resident who was learning the finer points of doctoring. I wondered later what he learned that day. The specialist came in and announced, “I am afraid we’ve got some bad news, Mr. Bane. The MRI revealed that you have a large growth in your leg, and it might be cancer. It will have to be removed.” Now, I was already sitting down, so he didn’t have to say, “Mr. Bane, please sit down.” I didn’t fall over because I don’t think I absorbed what he said right away. My initial verbal response was: “Well, does this mean I’ll be in the wheelchair division (of races)?” No one laughed.
He took me out to a computer, brought up the MRI, and showed an image of a large mass that didn’t belong in my leg. He had a name for it that sounded less threatening than tumor, but within minutes I couldn’t remember what it was. He said he was turning me over to his partner whose specialty was surgery and oncology. Who wants to have an appointment with any specialist with the word “oncology” on his card, anyway? I was given a date for a week later and was out the door and into my car and driving home.
Not counting the time I spent waiting to be seen, the entire visit was about 15 minutes in length. Other than the fact that I got to see an MRI, the interaction was roughly equivalent to the “you might have cancer” conversation I had had 38 years before.
The events might have been similar, but my response to them was not because in the 38 years separating those “you might have cancer” conversations I have actually grown quite fond of living. As a 16 year old I didn’t want to lose that body part; as a 54 year old I didn’t want to lose my life just yet. I have learned in those 38 just what a loss it would be to die, for you see, I am not a Buddhist or a Hindu. I don’t believe in reincarnation. I am a Christian and I believe that this life is the only one I am going to have.
Now, you might be thinking about me: “What a dunce. Doesn’t he know that even if he has cancer, it doesn’t necessarily lead to death? And why did he immediately assume he has cancer anyway?” –OR- “What a shallow, faithless person (especially for an ordained minister). Doesn’t he know that everyone who lives will die someday? And doesn’t he realize what a blessed and long life he has lived compared to most of the world’s people? And shouldn’t he be looking forward to a future in heaven – the sooner, the better?”
Intellectually, I did know that a cancer diagnosis does not have to be fatal. I have known many people who have been successfully treated for cancer (even if they did lose a body part or two along the way). And I also knew that I have led a truly wonderful life with so many, many blessings. God has been very good to me. And after presiding at so many funerals, I think I have faced the fact that someday my body (like everyone else’s) will give up the ghost.
But my clinical intellect was no match for my emotions. Cancer felt like death to me, and I wasn’t prepared to die yet. My father died a week shy of his 48th birthday, and I remember the relief I had when I turned 48. I felt like I had passed an important threshold leading to a new phase of my life. Was this new phase to be so very short?
I have always kept a journal, but the day after the second time I was told that I might have cancer I stopped writing in my old notebook and started a fresh one. At the top I wrote: “The Rest of My Life Journal.” I feel that this second time for me is a turning point in my life regardless of how much longer my life might be. I don’t know what kind of turning point it will be yet, but I sense that it is pivotal.
Since I started that new journal, I have had surgery and a growth larger than my fist was removed from my left leg. On the back of that leg, I have an incision about seven inches long which is held together by staples. It looks like something stitched together by Victor Frankenstein, and once it heals it should provide a disturbing enough scar to scare the average child. If only short shorts were in fashion again.
Some people get a tattoo as a visible reminder of a significant event in their lives. I have thought about getting a tattoo before, but I won’t need one now. That scar will be my tattoo.
I still don’t know if I have cancer or not. The initial biopsy of a small part of the tumor was negative, and I should learn this week about the biopsy on the whole mass. I feel like I am running to escape the forest that is filled with monsters, I can see the clearing ahead, I glimpse the sunlight, I am almost there, but something might just get my ankle and pull me back in. I am not out of the woods yet.
Regardless of what I hear this week, I hope that I respond with a sense of gratitude and thankfulness because 38 years between my first and my second cancer scare is longer than what many people live. I haven’t just had a “normal life,” but a life richly blessed. I have no complaints to lift up to God or to anyone else. I’ll seek to be happy with whatever years I might have left. In the meantime, I try to live out these words of Paul in Romans 12:12: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.”