In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. Richard Dickens wanted to help cancer patients, but he never imagined he'd have to battle disease himself before being able to do so.
Three words unite all cancer patients: "You have cancer." These words shock the mind and for many begin a period of denial.
Denial is not a bad word. As someone once said in a young adult group I attended, "Sometimes there is a healthy dose of denial."
I experienced a healthy dose of denial when I was diagnosed with stage IV follicular lymphoma at 37. Before my diagnosis, I was an avid athlete and a competitive marathon runner. I felt I was at the peak of good health.
Then one morning, when I lifted my arm and saw a swollen lymph node, I knew it was serious. Walking numbly through weeks of tests and appointments with several doctors at different hospitals, I learned my prognosis. The good news was that my cancer responded to chemotherapy, but the bad news was that it was terminal. I asked a nurse and doctor how long I had to live; they told me I had maybe 10 years.
Ten years are a lifetime when you're 8, a short time when you're 80, and not enough time when you're 37. Still I never asked "Why me?" By 37, I knew people my age and younger who had died of cancer, AIDS, accidents and a wild lifestyle.
As a person of strong faith, I realized none of us are guaranteed a full or super-sized life. Instead of "Why me?" I wondered "Why not me?"
If I only had 10 years to live, what did I want to accomplish? I adopted the beliefs of a "realistic optimist" - I would do anything to beat my cancer, but I didn't want to deny that cancer brings some uncertainty. About this time I read a quote in a magazine that said: "I asked God, 'How much time before I die?' She replied, ‘Enough to make a difference.'"
That quote put my situation into perspective. We can make a difference in a minute, a day or a lifetime. It's not about time, it's about quality. So I chose a very aggressive treatment, went into remission, and left my corporate job to attend graduate school and study social work.
During this time, the clock was ticking, and I felt I needed to get comfortable with death. I knew some people who had worked with the Missionaries of Charity in India, and so I traveled to India and volunteered at Mother Teresa's first clinic, Kalighat Home for the Destitute Dying.
My cancer came back when I returned from India. I graduated from Columbia University bald and in treatment and then underwent a bone marrow transplant, thanks to my sister Kathy. It wasn't easy. But with the support of my family and friends, I did recover.
More than 10 years later, I am now considered cured. I am an oncology social worker at CancerCare , a national organization that offers free, counseling and support groups, educational publications and workshops, and financial assistance to anyone affected by cancer.
CancerCare helped me when I was first diagnosed, and now I'm giving back by helping people find their way after a diagnosis. The difference I try to make is to help patients and their families develop a rhythm and get into a space where they can examine their emotions and feelings - guiding them through the maze that is cancer
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