Every day, I look at cancer. For me, that everyday cancer comes in the form of cells under a microscope. Cancer cells seem so innocent when you look at them under magnification, so normal. Ovarian cancer cells, which are the focus of my work, come in several shapes and sizes, depending on the type of disease they were isolated from and their metastatic potential, but none of them particularly menacing. I remind myself every day, however, that these cells are killing people right now, some that I know personally and many others whom I don’t. Cancer has crept into my life several times in the recent past through the battles of dear friends against this horrible blight. Their stories merit sharing.
Paul was a fantastic grandfather, father,and husband. He was a friend and had many friends in return. My fondest memory of him is from our wedding last year. We decided to give books away as favors for our wedding guests, a specially selected book for each person. Paul was never a big reader, but he did have a big sense of humor, so I took special care in selecting his book. I’ve always been a big David Sedaris fan. When you scan my bookshelves, you’ll find a special little corner devoted entirely to his work. So when the time came to choose something comedic and light with the kind of wit and personality that would suit Paul, I turned to Sedaris’ book, Naked. There’s a picture in my album now, showing Paul opening the wrapping of the book; his joyful face, laughing heart, and wide eyes tell the whole story. It’s a story of a man who hasn’t experienced much joy as of late, as he struggles with round after round of chemotherapy and radiation, but still relishes every moment spent on this earth with family and friends. As those stealthy innocent-looking cells spread through his bones and grew out of reach of every conceivable treatment, Paul’s spirit never wavered. When I walked 27 miles overnight for the ACS Relay for Life at the University of Albany in the spring of 2011, I did it for Paul. And he and his wife, Phyllis, were forever grateful. After he had lost his battle with cancer and moved on to the second phase of his life in the kingdom of heaven, his family held a memorial service for him at the church we all attend. It was so moving to hear the stories told of his life, all sweet recollections of his kindness, industriousness, and generosity. His grandson even put together a medley of songs played on an acoustic guitar which he had enjoyed hearing while with us here on earth. Everyone gathered following the service in the lounge below and each person appeared with expressions mirroring their paradoxical emotional state. Smiling with the joy of having witnessed a life fully lived. Tears of grief flowing freely at the thought of life without him. I miss Paul every time I look at that book sitting on my shelf, every time I look at that picture, and every time I think of what cancer has taken from this world. Cancer is greedy, but we will not allow it to consume our hearts.
Our pastor’s mother lost her battle with lung cancer a year ago as well. I didn’t know her at all, but I have always felt a close connection to our pastor, Iona, so I felt her grief nevertheless. What seemed like hundreds of people gathered in a little church in her hometown about 30 minutes from my home to attend her funeral service. So many people came to pay their respects that my car got boxed in and I couldn’t leave the church for nearly an hour after the service concluded. When the cancer entered her bones near the end of her struggle, her hips fractured from the force of her coughing. Her decline seemed so rapid to me, but Iona and her family always put on a brave face when asked about her condition. Their strength in the face of adversity is the kind that makes you feel guilty for being depressed sometimes. When I’m depressed, I know it’s because of brain chemistry, but there’s no avoiding wondering what could be so wrong in my life to make me feel this way. Faced with this sort of situation, the average person would most certainly sink into depression. But it’s extraordinary people like Iona and her family and Paul’s family that remind us of the resilience of the human spirit. Cancer may have claimed this woman’s body but it did not claim her soul, nor those of her loved ones. Cancer is ugly, but it will not stain the beauty of our time on this earth.
John is a very kind, gregarious man. His greetings always include a strong hug and a peck on the cheek, a smile, and a wink. He is the life of the party and deeply spiritual at the same time. I met him and his wife when I joined our church almost 5 years ago. Welcoming and friendly, he always made me feel like an honored guest wherever I went. Though they have begun attending services at a different church recently, John and Cindy make regular appearances at the shed of our church on Tuesdays, where we sell second-hand furniture and other goods that have been kindly donated by members of the community in order to raise money for mission efforts. Recently, John was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. To be completely honest, I am devastated at the prospect of losing such a dear friend. As he begins chemotherapy and continues to fight for his life, I reflect on my memories of the time we spent together. Memories of his spirit and his joy. Stories that will bolster my hopes for his speedy recovery. All we can do is wait now for the treatments to start taking effect. Donating blood and getting enrolled in the bone marrow donor registry seem like inadequate means to help him and his family, but anything I can do I will do for now. There have been a lot of advances in the treatment of adult leukemia as of late, but the process is long and painful for all parties involved. I am hopeful, however, despite the odds, for his full recovery. John is strong and he is ready to fight; with his friends, his family, and the lord at his side he truly cannot fail. Cancer is evil, but the spirit of humanity will triumph assisted by the power of science and our everlasting protector above.
Cancer enters everyone’s life at some point, whether through a family member’s struggle, a friend’s, or their own affliction. Though every day of my life is spent thinking about cancer, I never realized what an impact it had on my own life. It is a reminder, like all painful things, that we must face each day with strength and bravery. We must confront adversity head-on and defend our safety, our peace, and our well-being. There is no end to the fight for life, nature has made it this way. But cancer will not win, because we are ready for a fight and are primed for victory. I just feel blessed that I have an opportunity to contribute to that fight in my small but meaningful way.
Thanks for listening.