Even the word itself is ugly. Scary. Frightening.
It’s a conversation stopper unlike any other. An attention grabber that no one ever wants to pay heed. A fun sponge, if you will, of the highest order.
Cancer is a sad and terrible reality for far too many people in this world. A destructive presence that invades its victims lives on every level, and shakes them to the core of their being, both those afflicted and those who love them. Cancer does not discriminate. It does not care if you’re white or black, old or young, gay or straight, rich or poor. It can cost you your job, take your life savings, steal your identity, and come back wanting and demanding even more. It is far-reaching and all encompassing and cuts across all socio-demographic groups, regardless of age, race, culture, or status, and despite many discoveries and scientific advancements, it remains one of the leading causes of death on this planet.
The term “cancer” can be defined as any kind of abnormal cell proliferation over which the body fails to have control. This has come to include over 200 different diseases with some basic similarities – cancerous cells all grow, invade, and destroy surrounding normal healthy tissue –but which have a variety of causes, symptoms, and appearances, each requiring its own unique and distinct course of treatment, meaning we must treat nearly every form of cancer differently and carefully.
Cancer is tough to treat because of what it isn’t. There is no virus or bacterium that directly causes it. You can’t “catch it” from another person or from an unclean surface or from the air. Environmental factors may play a role, but they are not the only cause. Cancer is a disease of the genes. It happens when our own bodies turn on us, when a genetic malfunction allows cells to proliferate wildly, uncontrollably, and unstoppably.
Normally, our bodies are nicely equipped to keep our cells humming along. It’s a delicate balance, though; and unfortunately, if growth-promoting cells become overly enthusiastic about their job or if growth-suppressing cells fail to do theirs –the result is the same: cancer.
I’ve seen what the horrors of cancer can do far too many times already in my life. My first encounter was back when I was a hard working but equally hard partying twenty something year old, who, despite my Scottish Gaelic roots, was an avid sun lover. Late one night, a very perceptive coworker of mine noticed a mole on my face that just didn’t look right. At her urging, and a quick trip to my doctor later, I found these three scary words dropped upon me: basal cell carcinoma, which translated to “you have skin cancer.” After a fast consult with a cancer doc and a plastic surgeon, the nasty little mole was simply cut out of my face, and because it was caught so early, no other treatment was required…other than a watchful eye for the next mole-ish invader. Still, EVERY time I look in the mirror I see the small scar and indentation just at the shave line on my right cheek, an ugly reminder of what might have been. (It’s the real reason I hate to shave, uncovering that ugly reminder every time) That cancer scare was eventually a catalyst for a great deal of change for me personally – and resulted in me quitting my job, moving to a different city, and starting a new life…. because really, we only get one of them, and so I think we owe it to ourselves to live the best one we possibly can.
I wish that close call had been my only experience. But no….instead, cancer seemed to enter my life and the lives of the people I love time and time again, always unexpected and always unwelcome. Friends that lost parents when those friends were only children still, or friends who struggled through the absolute horrors of breast cancer. Relatives who have fallen again and again to various forms of the disease, while others who have had close calls or scares and stay ever vigilant, almost expectant, of its first signs. But by and large, the worst fate seemed left for my father, a very kind, gentle, and good-humored man who lived his life helping others and in return was left with what I can only describe as the most cruelest, meanest, and most vicious of deaths imaginable. My father was a fireman who loved all sports, a broad-shouldered guy who usually ran about 180 lbs. during his heyday but in his last months of life was lucky to weight 100 pounds soaking wet. One of my last memories of him was helping to lift him in and out of bed to help with toileting, while trying best to preserve his dignity, joking about how he used to do it for me when I was little so I was just returning the favor…then to find myself crying later in the shower, a daily ritual then, so that no one would see how horribly upset I was by his ravaged appearance. And then only to become bitterly angry with myself for being so upset and afraid when he who was suffering was being so absolutely, incredibly brave.
And now cancer’s latest victim is my baby sister Raylene. Although I won’t call Raylene a victim, because that’s a word that’s not in her vocabulary. Raylene was diagnosed a month or so ago with colorectal cancer, the same disease our father fought for almost ten years before he lost his battle. She’s a strong person, a fighter through and through. One of the best people I’ve had the privilege to know, Ray is not only my baby sister but also one of my best friends. And because she’s still so young, because she caught this so early, because of her fighting spirit, and because of the positive light that simply shines through her and illuminates everything and everyone around her, it is my belief she WILL beat this thing. Not only that, but probably kick its ass, take it to school, and show it a thing or two before it’s all said and done.
I hope we one day soon find a cure. But until that happens, I believe we owe it to ourselves and to those that came before to do what we can to arm ourselves in the battle. Let’s remember to support those on the front line fighting the war, whether it be researchers desperately searching for that next break through, or those who are suffering, as they bravely put one foot in front of the other day after day moving towards what has now become their new normal. Together, let’s join these proud, brave people in this courageous fight for life.
Cancer’s kind of like that. Despite it’s many evils, or perhaps because of it, it makes you stronger than you ever thought possible. It makes you carry a burden you never thought you’d bear. It makes you rise to a challenge you didn’t think you’d ever overcome. It makes you be THAT person you never thought you could be. It makes you a victim, but it also makes you a fighter, a warrior, a survivor.
Thanks to the World Health organization website for some facts and figure, and my sister and our dad for the inspiration.
If you’re reading this and you’re going to be in Cape Breton on Sunday, May 19th, please drop by Centre 200 for a fundraiser and silent auction for my sister Raylene (Morrison) MacDonald to see some incredible talent and good ol’ Cape Breton community spirit at it’s finest! For more information, for tickets, to contribute, or if you just want to pass on good wishes, please contact Donna Morrison, my older sister extraordinaire, quite the scrapper herself, who’s assisting with organizing the event at firstname.lastname@example.org or feel free to contact me directly at email@example.com