Surviving cancer

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Part two of a series

"Cancer is an education you can live a lifetime without."

This is what Angela said when she sat down to discuss the education she didn't sign up for when she was suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer. This lovely 43-year-old has her trademark wide-open smile at full throttle. She has lots to grin about these days. She just made it past her three-year cancer-free anniversary.

She quickly warned me: "I'm not one of those people who were 'grateful' for my cancer. I was not one of those who made friends with my cancer."

How did she cope with it, if not with these oft-advised positive thinking schemes?

Humor ... and not necessarily of the reverent variety. When she first received her diagnosis, she made her friends throw a party. No worried looks or vain assurances allowed; only hula hoops and any other form of silliness her friends could dream up.

She would need this humor for what many cancer survivors will tell you is the worst part of the diagnosis: the treatment. A part of her body that had always been private became public property. Fed up with the impersonal nature of the weekly treatments, Angela finally said to the radiation tech: "If you are going to see my boobs, I am at least going to know your name."

Angela prepared for her lumpectomy by drawing a happy face on her left breast. It was a playful reminder to her doctor which one was the happy breast, the one that didn't need to be operated on.

One of the few men who was willing to talk to me was Michael. At 56, he is thriving in a successful new business and a great relationship. It wasn't always that way. Nine years ago, at a low point in his life, when his marriage was going south and he was burned out professionally, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. During the surgery, the doctor discovered bladder cancer.

"He removed the tumors and sewed me up. I was informed that I was lucky," reported Michael. "Lucky is a fascinating word in the cancer world. Once you have cancer you are screwed. Cancer means you are going to die. OK, I know that isn't true, but when you get the diagnosis, you know you are going to die."

I told Michael what I had reported in last week's column: The mind seems to have little to do with causing or preventing cancer.

He told me that his son had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor when he was 5 years old.

"Some new-age creep tried to explain to me that we bring cancer on ourselves. After tearing out his heart with my bare hands I told him I disagreed!"

So you don't agree that we bring on cancer? I asked.

"Was the cancer a physical embodiment of my soul at that time in my life, or, did I manifest the cancer to remind myself of being alive? Beats the hell out of me. Yet I do know that I was at a point in my life where I had emotionally and spiritually 'given up.' I think my immune system was shot, that I was an easy target for those nasty little cells."

And then Michael told me something that almost everyone who shared their cancer story with me said.

"I do believe that my attitude increased my chances of survival. I got stronger, more alive, more to live for, more to look forward to, a renewed appreciation for every day's small events; the taste of food, the feel of the water on my skin, the sun sparkling through the drops of water as I swam.

"It sounds oh so corny ... but it's oh so true."

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at

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