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Celebrating surviving: Amgen Breakaway from Cancer

April 25, 2014 

No, this is not another column on Cambria’s water crisis!!

In three weeks, the Amgen Tour of California will be making its mid-week stop in our lovely town. Additionally, the ATOC-associated Breakaway from Cancer organization will be at the festival and, preceding the arrival of the riders, will celebrate cancer survivors and their families in a special event.

What is it about cancer that draws people together? About 17 years ago I learned why.

At the age of 44, I discovered a lump on my neck that was truly scary. As a physician, I knew that the possibility that it was benign was low, but not impossible. My initial set of doctors, after ordering the usual high-tech tests, thought it was benign as well (maybe they were in as much denial as I was).

Consequently, I went on that previously scheduled international business trip and deferred having the “benign” lump removed until after I returned.

On my day of “initiation,” I was first on the operating room schedule for a procedure that should have taken perhaps an hour. After being put to sleep and going through the procedure, I began to arouse in the recovery room.

I glanced at the wall clock and knew immediately that something was not right. “Three hours,” I thought, “what’s up with that?”

The nurses were avoiding me and did not ask how I was doing. I knew that was not a good sign. Once out to my room, the appearance of my tearful, red-faced wife said it all and, shortly thereafter, I got the official news. Every person with cancer has their own story of initiation, this was mine.

Denial, reality, anger, fear, and just getting on with it followed. Radiation, chemo, numerous trips to the synchrotron (fancy name for the radiation device) became my existence for the next two months.

Seeing many doctors, telling and re-telling the story, shocking my friends and co-workers with my appearance and situation were just part of the cancer “drill.” The outpouring of cards, small gifts, and visits of those who dared to see me were all appreciated, and I still have many of these tokens of concern today.

But this, after all, was just stuff that centered on me and my challenge — what about the concept of community?

My wife and I realized that we were part of a new community as a result of enduring our daily trips to the radiation therapy clinic. The machine visits lasted just 10 minutes and, because of the multiple machines that were there, the waiting room was always filled with patients waiting for their turn paired with their “drivers” (usually spouses, close friends, etc.).

What a diverse group: a young woman with stage 4 breast cancer, a man with metastatic melanoma in his brain, a man with metastatic renal cell cancer, a man with esophageal cancer, a man with prostate cancer, and so on were the people I saw daily.

You would think that we would not want to talk because of our circumstances, but that was not the case. While we rarely spoke about our individual cancers, we would try to be as “normal” conversationally as possible while daily facing our fears together, unspoken, but deeply, mutually, understood.

After a month, we had gotten to know each other pretty well, so we had a small patient group party in the waiting area one day. From the outside this may have appeared unusual, if not morbid, but to us it was special. We had become a “community” and had arrived at a visceral understanding of what we shared in common.

Membership in this community cut across race, gender, age, culture, and socioeconomic status; facing cancer was and is the unifier. Incredibly powerful stuff.

While I am dealing with long-term aftereffects of the treatments that were curative in my case, these shared experiences with others with cancer forever changed me in a much deeper way.

Because of my position, reputation, and background (pathologist), I began to get calls once I was back to work. They usually began “I have a friend ...,” or, “my mother has been told ....,” “would you mind speaking with ...,” etc.

I have spent many hours since on the phone with, or across the table from, patients and their loved ones who were being “initiated” into the “community” — helping them face their fears, make decisions with facts and encouraging them to proceed with therapy despite their anxieties.

This is a calling and everyone in the cancer community feels it. There is a compelling need to give back and help others once you have been “in it.”

Back to the ATOC: The special event on Wednesday, May 14, will be the recognition of a local cancer “champion,” followed by a celebratory parade of 150 survivors sponsored by the Breakaway from Cancer initiative. As the local organizing committee chair, I encourage area cancer survivors, their families and loved ones to come out for this event (all are invited to participate).

If you want to be in the parade, you will need to sign up on a website at http://amgentourofcalifornia.com/breakawaymile.

The Breakaway from Cancer parade (per se) is limited to 150, so you will need to sign up early if you really want to come along for the walk. Of course, there will be room for all observers. After all, this will be a “community” celebration! Looking forward to seeing you there!!

Cancer survivor David Lacey is chairman of the Cambria Breakaway from Cancer Local Organizing Committee.

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