By Mary Koral
It’s not a group anyone would join willingly. But, it is a group I have joined and see every week. There’s age range and a mix of male and female. There’s a group leader. We talk and talk and sometimes we leave uplifted and sometimes we leave feeling worse than when we came.
If it sounds like an AA meeting, it isn’t. It’s a cancer support group and the goal of every person in the group is to stick around. Everyone wants to be walking upright on this planet of ours, to write another book, sing another song, act in a play, or knit a scarf. Cancer changes the way a person thinks about time. Cancer changes every single thing in your life. So, we sit and talk about that. The group is varied. We have a range of cancers: lung, breast, brain, prostate, you name it; we all know something about all kinds of cancer from sharing our stories. We are older and younger, male and female, and we all try very hard to help each other. Many weeks I wonder what we have in common that took us to this place. Did we all drink from too many plastic bottles of water? Did we fail to exercise enough? What, oh what, did we do to end up in this group?
Sometimes I don’t want to make the turn into the driveway to be in a cancer support group again, to sign in as the Patient. I am anything but patient. I want to do what I planned to do at this stage of my life! I want to hike ten miles, write another book, work with refugees. But, I know that what I have, is now, at this moment, in this group, right now with these people that I truly care about. I have this and if I throw it away because I keep looking over my shoulder at the life I had or imagined, then I have nothing at all.
I wasn’t sure that I’d talk at all about this part of my life. But I am talking about it because I feel that people do not know much about Stage Four Cancer. It’s not their fault that they don’t know very much. There are not droves of research dollars that go into Stage Four Cancer. I admire the hard work of researchers. I am grateful for good treatment and health insurance and support. I am grateful to be able to be writing this.
I am grateful to be here.
The plea of people who have a Stage Four Cancer is: Stage Four Needs More! (Meaning funding, of course.) More attention is good too. And hopefully, this is happening. Meanwhile, I am scouting every site, every new trail, anything that seems feasible. I listen to my oncologist and either nod in agreement or choke back fear.
Most of my friends and the people I meet are kind and respectful when they refer to my diagnosis. But sometimes, people will say, “Didn’t you have your mammogram?” I understand that it’s very hard to know what to say to someone in my situation. I understand the need to protect yourself by trying to come up with a reason that a person has cancer, in my case, currently incurable, hopefully chronic.
But, please don’t think that it’s someone’s fault that they are living with cancer. Don’t assume that if someone has lung cancer, it is because she or he smoked. I, myself, used to think that was the case. It is not. Many lung cancer diagnoses are for NEVER SMOKERS. Consider this, even if they smoked a carton a day, would they deserve cancer? I don’t think so. Reject the idea that if that woman had only gone for a mammogram on time, she would not be diagnosed with Stage Four. Twenty to thirty percent of women with breast cancer will have Stage Four disease at some point. Is it because they didn’t live right or have bad genes? Oh, if only we had a map, a road to follow!
I, myself, believed in good living, exercise, diet, (plus the bag of chips from time to time). I still do. I really do. But I am at a loss to know how I got to Cancerland. I could consider genes, but my dad lived to ninety-nine. My mom lived to be eighty-three. And not one of my six siblings, even the two who both smoke and drink, has cancer. Scrub that idea!
It’s not horrible to want to cheer the winning team, not the struggling team. It’s not horrible to believe you will evade Cancer somehow. Surely I thought that too. But, that was before I had my diagnosis. Now, I live with cancer; now I try to value the time I have.
I want the people in this group to survive. I want them to be able to grow old, to have grandkids. At least, I want them to be around and to have a good quality of life two or three years from now. Then maybe five? Is that even possible? Time would be great.
I want the people in my group to be vocal in asserting themselves and advocating for more funds. I want the mentality of silo thinking (researchers keep their findings to themselves) to be gone. Oh I want so much! Then I need to remind myself yet again to be where I am and do the good it is possible to do. (Some days it seems like not very much.)
Anyone can receive a diagnosis of cancer and wonder how they got to Cancerland. They were never planning to go there! Their plane must have been plane hijacked! The place they wanted to go was Italy. This place, Cancerland, is like a very bad Motel Six next to a strip mall. Who would want to be in this place at all? Heck, even the corner party store would be better… if we could only say once again with surety in our voices, “Yeah, I plan to do that in a few years.” But here we are. We make the best of it most days, some days it is much harder. Still on any given day I think the following: Yeah for life. Yeah for the cancer support group!