Thanksgiving is one of America’s favorite holidays. No gifts. The beginning of the holiday season. Just family, food, and football. Unfortunately, the holiday’s true meaning — giving thanks — sometimes slips right by. I know I haven’t always taken a moment to feel gratitude as much as I could. But not this year.
This Thanksgiving I’m particularly thankful for some things that I’d like to share with you. Eight months ago my wife, Sharon, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I’ve told patients for years that cancer is the scariest word in the English language. But as you would imagine, it hit me much harder as the spouse than the empathy I always feel for my patients. Cancer changes your status in life from being well to being a survivor, that new dimension the American Cancer Society calls any living person with a diagnosis of cancer. It doesn’t mean cured or in remission. It means just what is says…surviving. And surviving provides the basis for hope.
Over the past eight months many things have changed for my family and finally, the future is looking brighter again. Despite the many challenges, I’ve learned some things that aren’t taught well in medical books and I’ve reinforced some things I know intellectually, but now know first hand. I want to share these nine lessons and hope they are useful if you are one of your loved ones faces the all too prevalent cancer.
1. Tell people what’s going on. I don’t mean it’s the first thing you say and I don’t think it’s necessary to tell every acquaintance or the cashier at the supermarket, but it seems that everyone either has cancer or has a family member who has it. According to the American Cancer Society, about 12 million Americans currently have invasive cancer and about one in three people will get cancer sometime during their lifetime. People definitely can relate to it. It’s easier to come out and just say so. Then if you’re tired or don’t want company, people will understand. And if you need help, people will pitch in. Believe me, it’s no shame or sign of weakness.
2. Cancer changes your life and the lives of those around you. They say it takes a village to raise a child. I’d say that when someone in the village gets cancer, it affects the entire village. It affects everyone we hold dear. Life is precious. We all know we won’t live forever, but appropriately, we don’t think about that most of the time. When someone gets cancer, they are a parent or a child or a sibling or all of the above. And all of those relationships are in peril. For us, the outpouring of love from friends and family has been both humbling and a source of strength. Family members have been totally available and really demonstrated their affection. Friends call and check in. They’ve all shown their support in so many ways. It’s very healing and I think it has been healing for them as well. People want to make her happy because she is worthy and as Clayton Christensen writes in his book How Will You Measure Your Life, it deepens their commitment to her and hers to them.
3. Pray and have others pray for you. I’m not sure we need a statistician to tell us whether or not G-d exists, but if you don’t believe in religion and you do believe in math, here is the math theory that states you’re more likely to be correct if you think “yes.” Almost without fail, when people found out of Sharon’s diagnosis, they offered to pray for her. One of my Catholic friends arranged for his priest to say a prayer weekly and for a special mass for her in a year. The priest did not know that my wife is Jewish, and asked, “What part of Ireland is she from?” My friend responded, “From the good part.” One of my mother’s friends who is a nun asked her entire cloister to prayer for Sharon. Every denomination offered their positive thoughts and prayers. These acts of personal giving offer great comfort and support; and both spiritually and mathematically, I believe they are a help.