Just as last week’s column attempted to describe the loss a surviving cancer patient feels when a fellow cancer patient succumbs to his disease, this week’s column will attempt the opposite: describe the feeling a surviving cancer patient feels when a new lung cancer patients joins the club. Specifically, an individual (who I met this week, coincidentally) who exudes the kind of confidence and positive attitude necessary to endure the bumpy road ahead. Unfortunately, one doesn’t always have the luxury to avoid the road/not join the club; to quote Grouch Marx: “I don’t want to belong to a club that will accept me as a member.” If only it were that funny – and simple.
With respect to lung cancer patients, typically a late-stage diagnosis: stage IV (there is no stage V), is heard early on the initial appointment with one’s oncologist. Given that there is at present, no agreed-upon approach to screen for lung cancer and in many cases, patients are often symptom-free or experiencing discomfort not in the lungs; nor having any difficulty breathing, coughing or coughing up blood, among other symptoms, especially so for non-smokers who now represent upwards of 25 percent of new lung cancer patients, this is not uncommon. For multiple reasons then, lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer deaths in this country, projected at 158,000 in 2016, as well the leading cause of new cases of cancer reported every year, projected at 225,000, “more than colon, breast and prostate cancer combined,” according to cancer.org. One percent live beyond two years, according to cancer.net.
Generally speaking then, one can say, with a reasonable amount of confidence, that receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer is devastating news and for a few days anyway, knocks the wind completely out of your sails, even if you don’t own a sailboat. It’s almost impossible, eight years post-diagnosis, to articulate exactly how I felt when a doctor (an oncologist) whom I had never met told me I had stage IV, non-small cell lung cancer and advised me I had “13 months to two years” to live (I was 54 and a half at the time and a life-long non-smoker). Out of the blue doesn’t even begin to describe my reaction. Surreal, which was my general sense of what I had just heard is also a very common description, as I have likewise heard and read from other newly diagnosed cancer patients.
So you need to find help anywhere you can get it. For me, the most valuable help was/is emotional: people being supportive, encouraging, funny, unafraid to face my reality and most importantly, positive – about the negative. Don’t tell me anything that I’m doing is bad. Tell me everything I’m doing is good. Minimize the negative and maximize the positive. Don’t be overconfident but do be underwhelmed. Take my circumstances in stride. Don’t walk quietly and don’t carry a big stick. Treat me normally – in spite of my cancer, as you would had I not been so diagnosed.
If I am treated in these ways, I will – and think I have become, a welcome addition to the club. Because this is a club that needs individuals to step up and fight not only for themselves but for to others as well. And if in fact what goes around comes around, I will be similarly embraced and moreover, cared for and about; and it’s the strength in these numbers that will empower me to be the best cancer patient I can. And when I meet a fellow cancer patient, this how I will roll: concerned but emotionally available, serious but funny, respectful but disarming, realistic but hopeful and always positive about their negative. If I am turn treated in a similar way and the patient expresses the kind of good-in-the-locker-room type of attitude necessary for the long journey ahead, I will feel stronger and more hopeful for my own circumstances than I would have had I not met this new patient.
Cancer shouldn’t be a singular pursuit. I need your help, and I’m willing to offer mine. If we help other, we’ll both be better served because of it. This is not meant to be selfish, it is meant to be selfless. There is no “I” in cancer.