Cancer: Heading for Home

Whether you’re a man or a woman, whether you’ve just been diagnosed or are years away from having received that awful news, whether you can tell a baseball from a tennis ball, this is for you.

It is also for the medical community.  Never underestimate the impact a simple act of kindness can have on a cancer survivor coming in for a routine exam.  It won’t change the outcome, but it will help wash away some of their gut-wrenching fear.

Six years after I was diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer, and 5 years and 10 months after I completed treatment and was told, “Go live your life”, I realized there’s a parallel between cancer and baseball.  I can’t actually take credit for that correlation.  It evolved from a conversation I had with a close friend who survived State I colon cancer.  We came to the realization that once you’ve had cancer you never feel safe again.

Think about it for a minute. As often and, in as many ways that your medical team tells you “You are fine”, you still struggle.   You’ve rounded the bases (surgery, treatments, check-ups all good) but you never quite reach Home Plate.  Because before you know it there’s another check-up and you’re right back to where you started, waiting in the on-deck circle for your turn to either hit a home run (“Your tests are fine”) or strikeout (“We see something…”).  It made perfect sense.

I grew up in the 1950s, in a suburban NJ community 20 miles outside of New York City.  In the shadow of three Major League Baseball teams at the time – the Yankees (Bronx Bombers), the NY Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers.  We were Dodger fans.  A couple of members of the team lived in our town – second baseman and power hitter, Jim “Junior” Gilliam, and starting pitcher, Don Newcombe, the first African American to win the Cy Young Award.  I was an only child – a girl – but that didn’t stop my father, an avid baseball fan, from introducing me to the game.  He liked to reference that I was born the year Jackie Robinson became a Brooklyn Dodger, 1947, the first African American to play in the Majors since the late 1800s.  Whether it was lobbing balls to me in our backyard, or talking about the various players as they came up to bat, I became acquainted with the game early.  When I was seven, my father took me to Ebbets Field.  We watched the Dodgers play the Giants.  The excitement of seeing a live game was second only to the runner rounding third, and to the screaming cheers of the fans, sliding into Home.  Now, I want to slide into Home.

Slim to none.  That’s what the pundits said about the Chicago Cubs’ chance of getting to and winning the 2016 World Series.  Marlene, a five-year cancer survivor, and die-hard Cub fans rejected that outright.  In spite of the doubters, it was their time, no more Billy Goat curse or any other mythical reason for their continued “close but no cigar” chances at the pennant.  They were going to beat the odds and they were right!  The Cubs won their first World Series since 1908 in the 10th inning of a game of the ages with a score of Chicago Cubs 8 and the Cleveland Indians 7.  They did indeed beat the odds.

The expression slim to none has taken on an entirely new meaning, for Marlene.  As she put it, “The doctors will never use the word ‘cured’ when it comes to cancer.  I get that.  But now when it’s time for the next check-up and fear and anxiety begin to cover me like a blanket, I recall that historical win, how the Cubs beat the odds, and whisper those reassuring words – slim to none”.

So, as cancer survivors, maybe it’s our focus that has to change.  After all, is anyone safe?  Were we ever safe from what Life can pitch in our direction?  I think we thought so.  But cancer changes that.  Once you’ve had cancer you are forever fragile.  A certain look on the face of the technician doing your scan can send you reeling and your blood pressure to new heights.  Whereas a kind word or a smile from the receptionist as you walk into your oncologist’s office somehow offers hope.  While this may seem like a small thing it makes all the difference to the person who may feel broken, abandoned and alone.  Many in the medical community understand that today.

But, none more so than my wonderful radiologist.  Before my first six-month mammogram and ultrasound I wrote him a letter introducing myself, explaining that I was coming in for my first test since diagnosis, and I was terrified.  You know kind of preparing him for however I may react in the office.  (I was really worried I’d cause a scene.)  A few days later I received a phone call – from this doctor, who had been so highly recommended to me.  I was stunned.  We talked about five minutes.  He assured me he understood my anxiety, said it was natural and normal, and that I should try not to be too upset.  I thanked him profusely for taking the time to call (who does this??!!) and told him how much his kindness meant to me.  At that first visit when he said, “You are fine”, we talked.  He promised it will get easier as time goes by.  I had serious doubts, but he was right.  His compassion and understanding was the first base in my emotional recovery.

Marlene had a similar experience with the anesthesiologist for her colon surgery.  Numerous surgeries, many complicated by the side effects of anesthesia, Marlene is no novice when it comes to anesthesia.  In 1996, prior to her diagnosis, she was facing yet another procedure.  It was then Marlene met her “angel”, an anesthesiologist who listened to her litany of horrific experiences, heard the panic in her voice.  The doctor assured her this would be a different experience, and it was.  “No nausea, vomiting or vertigo!  Is this what surgery is supposed to be?  I was determined that any future surgery would have to be at this hospital, with this same “angel”.

Eighteen years later Marlene was facing colon resection surgery.  The shock of diagnosis was second only to the panic at the thought of anesthesia. She asked her surgeon if this anesthesiologist is still practicing medicine and implores him to contact her and explain the situation.  “She not only called me, she called me three times prior to surgery, to reaffirm I would be okay”, Marlene said.  “The day of my surgery she stayed with me until I was wheeled into the operating room, all the while speaking comforting words. Her compassion was exemplary.  I will never forget her name and her kindness”.

Marlene and I still commiserate.  About our shared experience with cancer, as well as a host of other topics.  There was a time when I couldn’t speak about what happened.  Couldn’t say the word.  Now instead of hyperventilating two months ahead of my next test, I manage to make it to two weeks, sometimes two days.  The next exam, the next turn at bat.  Am I going to hit a home run, or strike out?  Good news!  And I begin making my way around the bases.  Again, heading for Home.  But rather than a place, maybe Home simply means we’re still in the game.  And with luck, it’ll go into extra innings.

By Kathy and Marlene