One Year After a Cancer Diagnosis

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The following essay is from the NPR My Cancer weekly podcast:

I'm coming up on the one-year anniversary of my second diagnosis with cancer. That, plus the Thanksgiving holiday this week got me thinking about how my life has changed. A year ago, I had no idea anything was wrong, although a couple of people said later they didn't think I'd been myself at Thanksgiving dinner. About two weeks later, I started slurring my words, and the rest of the story you know by now: Brain tumor. Brain surgery. Lung tumors. Spinal tumor. Chemo. Radiation. And so on.

But aside from the obvious, am I really that different? The other day at a party, a woman came up to me and said, "You're so brave." And I said what I always say: "Thank you, but I'm no braver than anyone else in this situation." People can handle all sorts of challenges and tests, far more than they realize. Almost everyone rises to the occasion. The people who survived Katrina and are trying to rebuild their lives are brave. The soldiers in Iraq are brave. The caregivers, the nurses and doctors who try to save us all — they're brave, too.

My body has changed in some ways that are obvious, and in others that aren't. I have a ridge in my skull where they cut it open to take out the brain tumor. You can feel the screws in the plates that hold my skull together. I'm heavier than I'd like to be. I put on weight when I was on steroids, and I haven't been able to work out much the last year. I hate the extra weight, though my doctors seem to think it's healthy.

Emotionally? Over the past year, I've hit the depths of sorrow, thrown in a little anger, too. Some hope, but probably not as much as I should have. Frustration. The whole gamut of human experience. And maybe that's one of the lessons here. In spite of the cancer, in spite of what we all go through, in the end, we're all just human. We're like everybody else. Except that we're not.

I try to make the most of my life these days. But I was really trying to do that before my diagnosis, too. My view of the future is a little cloudier; it's no longer open-ended. Not everything is possible anymore. I'm pretty much an optimist still, but that has been seriously tested, too.

I've learned a lot from all of you who've written in. Your eloquence and your humanity always teach me things, make me smile or make me nod in understanding. I've learned to see different things. The fear in the eyes of a loved one who wants so desperately to help. The different expressions on a doctor's face, depending on whether he has good news or bad.

And I've learned something that may be the most important lesson of all. I've learned that sometimes the best thing I can do for others, and for myself, is just to say something very simple: "It's going to be alright." No matter what happens, I know that's true.

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I don't really have words to convey. Whenever you speak on the radio, I don't leave the car until you're done. I read your blog in the website. Of course, I wish you the best, but that sounds trite. Hate to say its an interesting story, or that it helps me connect with what's important — seems that's using you in some trivial way that you're paying too much for my reality check. So it's hard to comment, except its good to hear this kind of story. My loved ones have fought cancer, some won and some lost. Many people have. It's good to hear it on the radio. Good luck and Thanks.

Sent by Mark Byers | 9:52 AM | 11-20-2006

It's nearly a year now since my own surgery to remove a large malignant colorectal tumor. Like you, I'm uncertain about my future, but I've learned to take as much joy as I can in the present. I guess we can no longer afford complacence about our sojourn through this life. Wishing you all the best in wherever things lead you, Leroy. Thanks for sharing.

Sent by Rick Stevens | 10:38 AM | 11-20-2006

Leroy thanks for writing a heartfelt article on cancer diagnosis. I share some of those feelings after I had a terribel car accident March 1998 a day before running my first marathon.

Sent by Jesse | 10:41 AM | 11-20-2006

Thank you so much for that simple last line today. I have searched for a way to let those who care the most about me to know that I am alright and will make it through. I guess the simplest way is still the best.

Sent by Steven Schneider | 10:46 AM | 11-20-2006

I have just returned from Northern Ireland where my 42 year old cousin is in her final days of life due to the discovery of stage four melanoma just this past September. As an American I went there with the we-can-beat-this-thing attitude, but was met instead by the family with a mood of resignation that there wasn't anything more that could be done. I can't help but wonder if because she only has one oncology resource in Belfast to rely on for diagnoses that her life is being cut short. As I read about Leroy's incredible year, I more fully appreciate what this year has meant to him and the skills and methods his medical team had to offer him. For his family and friends the gift of his still being here is priceless.

Sent by Colleen Corrigan | 11:10 AM | 11-20-2006

Thanks for the eloquent commentary! I think in spite of everything we should all be thankful during this thanksgiving season because we are still here and still fighting. Enjoy.

Sent by Dona | 11:21 AM | 11-20-2006

Dear Mr. Sievers,

I am a cancer survivor 10 years, one and a half months. I praise you for your fight.

Hope! Hope beyond what you think hope is.

Have faith! Heb. 11:1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Work! Treat this invader of your body as a job you have to complete.

Rest — rest in the knowledge that people everywhere are praying that you will be victorious in this battle.

Sent by Mae Lafferty | 11:25 AM | 11-20-2006

You are an inspiration to all of us.

Enjoy that pumpkin pie.

Sent by Mary Scruggs | 11:31 AM | 11-20-2006

We are in similar boats. A year ago my family wouldn't have given you a wooden nickel for my chances of being here this Thanksgiving, and they weren't too certain about eating turkey with me last year either. Now I look great and feel fine, but I probably won't be here next Thanksgiving. What a paradox. We all find it difficult to believe because it just flies in the face of reason and what our senses tell us.

And, yes, not matter what happens, it will all be alright. I have such a firm belief in that, and I can't even tell you quite where it is coming from. I just have found that on the way, on the incredible journey called cancer.

Sent by Stephanie | 11:46 AM | 11-20-2006

It's anniversary time for me, too. My mom died a few days before Thanksgiving last year. During the holiday meal right after her funeral, we had no idea what lay before us, but we were all feeling very close then, remembering her. I felt the lump a day or two afterward and was diagnosed with breast cancer Dec. 8th. What a year it's been! I do feel profoundly changed, though it's hard to articulate just how. Like you, I've shrugged off labels like "brave" because I know others would act the same way. They just haven't yet found themselves in the same circumstances. What are our options, anyway? Keep fighting or pull the covers over our heads and give up? We all just do the best we can. As you say, "we're all just human." I think it shocks people (and maybe scares them) to realize that cancer patients are no different from them.

Your daily column has helped me think about what it all means. So — I'm thankful for you, Leroy!

Sent by Doris | 11:53 AM | 11-20-2006

As I think of what I'm thankful for this Thanksgiving season, I must include you — a stranger because I've not met you — and your blog, which makes you less of a stranger. Your generosity in sharing your experience of having and living with cancer overwhelms me. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings with us. It's a gift without measure.

Sent by Carolyn | 6:10 PM | 11-20-2006

We all have our ways of expressing it, don't we? When people asked me about my cancer and treatment, I would say, "It is what it is, but that's all that it is." What I meant was that yes, it was the focus of my life at that time, but it wasn't all there was to life. That there was life before cancer and there would be life after cancer (though not necessarily mine).

Thank you for writing.

Sent by Martha | 3:29 PM | 11-21-2006

I heard you on NPR today and went back to read your blogs and found many things you wrote to be so reassuring and affirming. I was diagnosed almost a year ago with Stage IV lung cancer- no risk factors so it was a shock. A year ago I never would have pictured myself going through chemo and radiation and tolerating it physically and emotionally as well as I have. But like you said, we can surprise ourselves with how much we can do when we need to. Like you I was on Avastin and credit it with an almost total remission. I call myself stage I now though of course the doctors look at it differently but I remain cautiously optimistic. A fact many are not aware of: lung cancer will kill more women than breast cancer this year — many non-smokers or women who quit years ago.

Thanks so much for the time, heart, and energy you put into your blogs.

May you consume many more Thanksgiving turkeys in future years!

Sent by Marcia Greer | 6:20 PM | 11-21-2006

This time last year, I had no idea I would be on a journey with cancer. I was relatively young, healthy, fit, and loving life. I found my breast lump on Thanksgiving morning, so I am marking this Thanksgiving as the year anniversary as well. An incredible amount of life has changed for me this past year~ my body is scarred, damaged, but, God willing, cancer-free. I've left my job to focus on my health, but am embarking on a new one now that treatment is done. I've had to face my own mortality but like you, know that no matter what, it will be okay as I have a firm faith. I've seen God do amazing things this past year, especially through the people he's brought into my life. I am often overcome with the thought that I have/had cancer and know I've changed physically, emotionally, spiritually. All our futures are uncertain-they always have been, but we are much more aware of that after having a cancer diagnosis. I intend to live each day God gives me with joy, and I hear that in your writing as well. Thank you for the eloquent words you use each day to convey this journey. I find it very helpful. So, enjoy this Thanksgiving!

Sent by Karen | 12:55 PM | 11-22-2006

"It's going to be alright." I can't tell you how often my mother said those words to comfort me, my siblings, and my father. Her two year battle with small cell carcinoma (never smoked in her life!) taught me the strength and bravery one can possess when faced with such trying situations. I applaud you, Leroy. You are telling us what we want to hear... and everything will be alright.

Sent by Amanda | 12:57 PM | 11-22-2006

Leroy,

I write this a day later than everyone else, but I wanted to say "thank you" for your message on Monday. My parents just moved in with my husband and I last week, as my mom is no longer able to care for my dad without the help of family. My Dad is a nine year survivor of prostate cancer. He has come home to be with his family for whatever time he has left. While he continues to tell me he is not ready to go yet, his body is failing him daily. Your last statement... "It's going to be alright." No matter what happens, I know that's true. It brought tears to my eyes yesterday morning as I read your blog. It will be alright and we will face the days ahead of us with faith, dignity, style and a great deal of humor. While I doubt my Dad will be able to eat much of our Thanksgiving dinner, I know he will have room for a piece of pumpkin pie. Happy Thanksgiving to you, Leroy, and to your family. Thank you for sharing your journey with us all. Blessings.

Sent by Karen | 3:48 PM | 11-22-2006

Co-pays $15.00

Parking $8.00

Monthly meds $45.00

Leroy your blog... Priceless

Thank you.

Sent by Karen | 3:51 PM | 11-22-2006

Autumn Chemotherapy:

On the third day I return to be

"disconnected"—

that is,

to have the needle pulled out.

Arms, legs, and brain are heavy & dull

"I try, I try, but how long can I walk

this bitter road?"

Balancing between life and death—

Tasting from one and then the other.

Driving home I am distracted by the trees,

Resplendent in their forms and autumn

colors,

Tears of gratitude.

Sent by Carolyn Torrente | 12:21 PM | 11-27-2006

I have just finished my month, 20 radiation treatments. I have minor side effects, but when I think of the youngsters that I saw going in for their sessions, I realized that all I really had was a hangnail.

Sent by Andrew Golt | 12:23 PM | 11-27-2006

I listened to your most recent commentary, and thought, how brave you are, and surely you must provide a lot of people with hope and sustenance. I am a BC survivor, and I guess pretty lucky it's been a couple of years with no recurrence, but I feel its coming. Just my frame of mind. Yours, however (frame of mind, that is) is really supportive to so many. I am glad you have had another Thanksgiving, and I sincerely hope and pray you have many more. It's just a b—— of a thing, I think. Good Luck to you.

Sent by Dorothy Appell | 2:09 PM | 11-27-2006

My 19 year old freind Ben is gone now. I've written before about the Doctors finding stage four tongue cancer. Ben went through so much treatment in just seven months. Chemo, radiation, surgery to remove his tongue, tract tubes, respirator. In the end he choose to have the respirator shut off. His heart took six hours to quit beating — a strong and youthful heart. Since Ben's diagnoises, my mother and my life mate have all been told they have cancer too. I feel gulity to be alive and not using what time I have left to do something really worthwhile. Sorry, no happy endings for this story.

Sent by Leah Wellman | 3:28 PM | 11-28-2006

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