Yesterday someone asked me questions about my “View From Eighty” blog entry. I initially felt that cancer in one’s eighth decade of life wasn’t all that unfair. At eighty one has already lived beyond his life expectancy, one’s reached an age many of us who are younger and newly diagnosed only dream of reaching now.
But in the end, I came to realize that a cancer diagnosis isn’t so much about potentially dying…..it is that, but we all know we will die someday. We accept that. It’s really about what the disease that is cancer does to our hearts, minds and souls.
I was in Manhattan just before and just after September 11, 2001. I was actually asked to be in Manhattan on Sept. 11th but was unable to make the arrangements on short notice. I sat on a lawn near the Twin Towers on September 5th. A few months later I visited the memorial, all of the quilts and photos along the wall.
In thinking about that recently, I made a connection. I communicate with newly diagnosed cancer patients every day now. I realized why cancer is, as one patient recently said, “hard, hard, hard”. Cancer terrorizes us. And no one, at any age, deserves to be terrorized.
I read a statement today about terrorism; that terrorism “is designed to demoralize its targets by violating the basic assumption that one is safe”. After experiencing terrorism in our own country on September 11th 2001, we all questioned our long-held assumption that we were safe. We wondered if a plane in the sky was actually a missle directed as us. No one felt safe using a plane for transportation for awhile, ticket sales plummeted. Every package left in an airport was a potential bomb, a local flu epidemic might be anthrax. We no longer took our safety for granted, we no longer felt well protected, we suddenly felt very vulnerable. We were always looking over our shoulder. Life had changed, life was different. We felt fearful, we felt betrayed, we felt angry, we didn’t trust the future. We felt terrorized.
Then I thought, cancer does just that on a more personal level….it terrorizes us. We feel the same when we receive a cancer diagnosis as we did when we watched the Twin Towers collapse. Our world collapses. We are no longer safe, and the threat to our safety is not even something we can control, especially after we’ve exhausted all available medical therapy following the initial attack. We can’t do a lot to protect ourselves from the threat within our own body. Our borders have been breached, the enemy has made it inside. We never know if we have sleeper cells within our own bodies quietly organizing a new attack. Our own biology has turned against us, homegrown terrorism. We are on orange alert most of the time, red alert with every physical exam, CT scan and tumor marker. We can be on red alert for days awaiting CT scan results. It’s hard, hard, hard.
We remember the initial attack, so we know how vicious an enemy cancer can be. We’ve seen other victims slowly and gradually lose everything they’ve valued over a lifetime when sleeper cells have regrouped and resumed terrorist activities. We’ve seen the terrorism of cancer in others and watched as they’ve lost their health,their friends and family, their career, their income, their abilities, their dreams, their physical appearance, their freedom and in the end their lives. Some have been tortured. We know what the terrorist is capable of. We are at war with the terrorist and we know we are vulnerable and will be for a long time.
I read this today, a quote by George Bush from a speech he made following the terrorist attacks on our country in 2001. It can apply to those of us diagnosed with cancer too:
“We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment. Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom — the great achievement of our time, and the great hope of every time — now depends on us.”
We need to also find our mission and our moment as survivors in working to support each other and to support those searching for a cure for cancer. We need to find freedom from the dark threat of violence cancer brings to our lives.
We need to finally and forever defeat the terrorist that is cancer.