Kenneth L Abbott, MD, FACP  |  6/7/2022

Three Years On

My last post to this blog drew attention to the annual observance of National Cancer Survivors Day. As I type these words on my laptop, it is the evening of June fifth, which provides an occasion to reflect on my own experience with cancer and its treatment.

Three years ago today, I knew there was something wrong. I just couldn’t put my finger on exactly what. I’ve dealt with chronic lower back pain since I threw it out dragging a heavy piece of baggage across the passenger terminal at Frankfurt Airport over 30 years ago. It flares up from time to time but always responds to a little locally applied heat and some anti-inflammatory medicine. This time the simple tricks didn’t work. Increasingly through the month of June I had difficulty finding a comfortable position in which to sleep, in turn resorting to the firmer mattress in our guest bedroom and then a recliner in the living room. Then gas bubbles that were hard to shift developed. Finally, sitting at the breakfast table one morning, I pushed under my ribs on the left side and felt something that should not have been there. After some quick scans, I learned I had a four-inch mass pushing my left kidney aside. Four inches may not sound like much until you realize that’s roughly the size of a large orange, wedged into a space not made to accommodate oranges. A few days later, I received the news: stage II non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, an aggressive but highly treatable type. Six rounds of combination chemotherapy put me in a complete remission, where I have stayed ever since.

While I went through the diagnosis and treatment experience, cancer was to me an ever-present reality, and the threat of an early death cast a pall over every waking moment. The way I looked at my life, especially my future, took on an entirely different cast. In a vague, intellectual way, almost all of us accept the inevitability of death. But that death is always someday, preferably far off in the dimness of years to come. You really don’t expect to have it sit down across the table from you at breakfast, barging rudely in on the enjoyment of your raisin bran. And you resent it showing up each morning during chemotherapy, bony arms folded across ribs, tapping its bony finger, flashing its toothy grin, waiting patiently, scythe leaning against the cabinet.

There comes a day, though, when you look up from your cereal bowl and death, seemingly, has gone on holiday. It no longer watches with its empty sockets each spoonful lifted from bowl to mouth or each swallow of orange juice. It let itself out the front door and hasn’t returned. The future once again seems to count up as possible years instead of months or weeks or days.

Surviving cancer begins on the very first day you receive the bad news. You keep surviving every day that follows. For more and more people now, the day arrives when it suddenly hits you as you’re preparing for bed you haven’t once thought about cancer since the time you woke up, and the words take shape as you rest your head on the pillow, “I really am a survivor.”
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