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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

In Other Words: Cancer is a Harsh Teacher

Copping an attitude early in the journey. 

The doctor sat across from me in the examination room. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “The PET scan came back normal.”

I asked, “What does that mean?” I mean, what is normal, really? Is there a range of acceptability for cancer? Will one spot on the scan be acceptable? I needed clarification - but then I think I was slow on the uptake. 

He smiled and said, “That means the cancer is gone.” 

I was stunned. Speechless. Relieved. The proverbial weight was lifted.  

Then I began to tear up. And so did the doctor.  We talked about the check ups and related things. Then he just beamed with a mix of joy and pride.  He was genuinely happy for success and that he could give someone good news. I can’t imagine how difficult his job must be. He shook my hand and wished me well. After I left the office, I sat in the building’s lobby, cried, and sent texts. The lymphoma was gone. The phone exploded with excited dings.  

Our brains are hardwired to seek meaning. After all, we can look at random dots in the night sky, impose patterns, and then use those patterns. A flower is just a flower until one person offers it to another. Then it becomes a symbol of friendship or love.  We want significance. We want something more. And after experiencing a life threatening experience, I wanted to make sense of it. Find meaning. 

So I retreated for the Memorial Day holiday to process and to find some sort of meaning. I wasn’t treading new ground. I mean, things had changed. I had changed - physically, emotionally, and spiritually. But friends and neighbors have walked that path before me. Even though we suffered different types of cancer, we shared similar struggles. Here are a couple of stories. 

Ed Clore was diagnosed with AML Leukemia when he was 34. At the time, his wife was expecting their first child. Ed says, “My total treatment time was about 9-10 months.  I was also hospitalized additional times due to side effects of the treatment that arose due to my extremely low white blood count that resulted in infections…”  

“In the short term, I lost all of my hair, I became very sick from the treatment, and I lost a lot of strength.  At the end of the treatments, I experienced what is sometimes called ‘Chemo Fog’ with an overall haziness in my thought process that lasted about 3 months.  In the long term, the chemo weakened my bones and resulted in some permanent heart damage…. My wife, mom, In-laws, and my entire family and friends rallied to make sure things were taken care of.  At that point in time, my future was still very uncertain as to whether I would survive the disease.  I can vividly remember laying in a hospital bed, hooked up to a chemo pump connected to the port in my chest in July 2003, and thinking I would never see the age of 35.  After my induction chemo, I was blessed to be able to be present for the birth of my daughter, Madison on August 18, and I was thankful to be able to welcome her into the world and my family remained my focus on beating the disease and surviving.  My attitude and outlook on life became more focused on my family and friends.  I was more concerned about my family than myself.  The experience of cancer gave me the insight that there is no guarantee of a tomorrow.  I was later blessed with another daughter, Rylee.” 

Ed concluded that life is good but then he adds, “While I never let the cancer define me, it is definitely part of the person I am today….” Then Ed adds what many other cancer sufferers believe, “Each day is a blessing, make it count. “ And the good news is that he “was no longer required to go for annual check-ups as of 2013.”       

Marta Vennemann says that she was diagnosed with, “stage1, grade2 invasive ductal carcinoma of the right breast on November 13, 2009 at the age of 41.  I was in shock and disbelief initially as I had never been truly 'sick' in my life.” 

“The surgery and radiation left me with scars and disfigurement of my right breast and right armpit.  It used to be a big deal but no longer is much of a thought to me.  It just represents now how far I've come and how strong I am…. “The depression and feeling sorry for myself set in after the treatment was complete.  I no longer had so much focus on the next doctor appointment, but I was not fully convinced I was cured, fearing this was coming back anytime….”

Barre 3 Ft. Thomas. 
“I believe my spirituality has been strengthened through the experience, but not my religiousness.”  Marta discovered the healing properties of yoga and the kindness of community. People, some total strangers, brought gifts of  meals, time, and services. 

It was through these acts of kindness that I found a new spirituality within myself.  The pure and selfless kindness that was shown to me became an inspiration to me and how I wanted to reflect back to others,” she says.

“My attitude toward life now is one of gratitude.  I came to the conclusion several years ago that I actually feel gratitude for the experience of my cancer journey.  I am a better wife, mother, daughter, friend, person because of my cancer journey.  I am grateful for this beautiful life I have regardless of the ups and downs of daily life.”  

There is a beauty in the acceptance of our scars and the gratitude for kindnesses.  As the treatments destroy the disease, our minds gnaw away at our inflated sense of self and our weaknesses. It’s a wonderfully humbling experience. And it can make us stronger.

Why do we so often wait until someone is sick or dying before we show compassion or kindness or concern? It’s a human flaw for sure. Like Buddha said, “Life is suffering.”  But an expression of kindness is good for our health. It slows us down. We appreciate things, events, and people more deeply. We express gratitude more readily. Each day holds a certain joy. Life is in the slow lane is good. 

I can’t say that I am cured, but I am better.  The medical team successfully treated my body and the community successfully treated my spirit. How we approach our setbacks determines how we weather them. Ed Clore and Marta Vennemann were determined and shared their struggle with others; they succeeded. You know, I laughed at losing all of my hair, but now I’m kind of digging the new look. I am grateful for the kindness and compassion that this community showed and I will do my best to return that as well as pass it forward. Every scar that I carry is a reminder of a lesson learned. Thank you, cancer, for teaching me. 

Photo by Jennifer Fields-Summer


  1. That is wonderful news, Mr. Keller. I'm so glad for you and your family.

  2. Wonderful article. Here's to continued health for everyone!