Since the New Year began, major illness has already reared its ugly head for two people I know, one a close personal friend who received the diagnosis of multiple systemic atrophy of the brain, the other a valued colleague and friend who suffered most of the autumn with a persistent cough and was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. In both cases, when I heard the news, I was truly shocked. It just seemed so unreal and so unbelievable that this could be happening to them. When I finally ‘came to’, I realized that I have to learn how to be strong so that I can be there for the both of them in the best way I know how. Because their shock and disbelief, their sorrow and pain, are so much greater than mine; they have to tackle the surrealism of being given a diagnosis that could mean an earlier passage from this life compared to the rest of us. I cannot imagine what that must feel like. I do know what it feels like to witness the journeys of two friends who were diagnosed with breast cancer a decade ago. One of them received a diagnosis of breast cancer when she was sitting in her doctor’s office. She fainted on hearing the news. Luckily her husband was with her and he caught her as she fell off her chair. She was operated on to remove her tumor, received chemo and radiation, and is disease-free today. Another friend of mine was not so lucky; she passed away three years ago from metastatic breast cancer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after my other woman friend, underwent an operation to remove the tumor, but did not start with chemotherapy right away for reasons that made sense then but no longer now. Just because no cancer was found in the surrounding lymph nodes is no reason to not undergo chemo. But doctors have their viewpoints, and they most often prevail.
At times, I am struck by the surrealism that surrounds illness. It just seems so unreal at times and impossible to deal with, whereas at other times I am more inured to the idea of illness. I have a long relationship with illness; my father had his first heart attack when I was twelve years old, his second when I was twenty-one, his first stroke when I was in my mid-twenties, and the stroke that took his life when I was twenty-nine. I remember growing up worrying that my father could die at any time. I know he worried about the same thing because he told me that and so many other things on our walks together during summer evenings when I was a teenager. He had a wife and three children to consider in addition to the fear that he might die young. He was sixty-seven when he died, and that is young. When you are a child, you are perhaps somewhat more protected psychologically than you are when you are older and a loved one gets sick and dies. When I was twelve, I remember that my father was home on sick leave, that he watched TV and soap operas with us, and that he read a lot. It was enjoyable to have him home and available to us. When I was in my twenties, I understood more of what chronic illness can do to the afflicted person as well as to his or her family. The stress associated with worrying about a loved one affects the lives of those around him or her. Love becomes tightly connected with sorrow and the preparation for loss. Our teenage years were not carefree or sorrow-free.
I have learned to live with hopeful optimism and an objective realism where major illness is concerned. They co-exist within me, side by side, without battling each other for dominance. I pray for miracles at the same time that I know that there aren’t many of them. I’m aware of the statistics; I’m a cancer researcher, I know the odds associated with major illnesses, not just cancer. But I pray anyway for both of my friends. I also pray for the strength to be a good and supportive friend in the years ahead. It scares me to think that I won’t know what to do, how to be, or what to say. But then I remember my father, and how the most important thing was just to love each other. In the end, it comes down to that. Make the most of the time you have together. Create good memories. Life is short; for some of us, it is shorter, but all of us will face the day when we must leave this earth for good. That’s a thought that is always with me, since I was a child.