Patient #1:The secret society of cancer fighters

A common theme in the cancer world is that you are not in this alone.  Many, many individuals are stakeholders in the battle.  Some, like the medical professionals, have both a professional and personal interest in your treatment and recovery.  Others, like the hospitals and pharmaceutical companies, have a more “client” relationship with you, but still hope for a positive outcome.  Still others, especially volunteers, social workers, family, and friends, have a vested personal involvement.  There are lots of interested parties, and all of them are pulling for yours to be a success story.

Former cancer patients and survivors often go above and beyond to offer their support to active cancer patients – well, everyone offers help – but those who walked this road before open up and relive their experiences in order to help prepare others for their battle. Many of those survivors reached out to share their personal cancer experience without prompting, or even introduction.  People I don’t know – from as far away as Holland – have found me, shared their stories, gave encouragement, and offered “I am here if you need anything.”

It’s like being inducted into some sort of secret society – ‘Welcome Pledge Sharpe to the Kappa Rho Alpha Beta fraternity, here’s your pledge pin, start studying medical websites immediately and email us any questions.’

Hearing the many survivor stories has fortified my resolve and determination – not only to beat this for “I want to live” reasons, which are obviously the main drivers, but also for the “inspire others” factor.   My rationalization for why I have this (and I am a master of rationalization, occasionally to my own detriment) is that God wants me to be the person who will help others in their battle. I know how others helped me, and I already see that sharing my story in this forum is affecting others as they face similar challenges.

Meet Lisa: she is currently fighting lymphoma at Moffitt, and was following my story through several mutual friends who don’t know each other (Jen’s Aunt and my coworker and his wife – small world).  She came by my room during the IL2 treatments to introduce herself, and to tell me the blog was helping her cope with her upcoming battle. Hearing that gave me a lift; knowing I was helping someone else already made the next dose of IL2 more tolerable.  I hope my experiences give her some strength every day to deal with the tremendous amount of pain her recovery has dealt her.

Meet Chad: he and I are roughly the same age, both with young daughters.  His outlook is more serious than mine, and I can’t say I have done much other than trade emails and show him and his wife support on Facebook.  In our brief messaging back and forth, I hope to have passed on some of the encouragement I have received to him and his family.

Meet Becky: a friend of Jen’s from California, she learned of her thyroid cancer a couple months after visiting us for a morning on their way home from the Bahamas – note, she did NOT “catch cancer” from me!! Becky has been positive and upbeat throughout an 8+ hour surgery and her recovery, and has said my attitude helped her be positive.  She was joking with doctors and nurses in the OR before her surgery, and the doctor even remarked how great her attitude was. I hope a little bit of sharing what I am going through is making her ordeal a bit better and easier.

Meet Kiersta: a friend of my cousin Lis, she beat cancer just out of college. She now has three adorable kids, a clean bill of health, and is down one very special rosary that she sent to me, with strict instructions to give to someone else with cancer once I beat mine. Seeing that rosary every day reminds me that cancer doesn’t begin and end with the diagnosis I have – there are MANY T.J.’s out there who need support and strength and maybe a little bit of blessed prayer beads. I hope I can spread that love one day to someone who needs it.

Meet Gerrie: another friend of ours who had two cancer scares.  After the second one, she was a bit down, and our common cancer survivor bond gave me the liberty (or at least the illusion thereof) to email her with a bit of tough encouragement.  It worked and she bounced back to the happy-go-lucky wife and mom of two; I just asked that she do the same thing for the next person she encounters facing this battle.  A couple of months later, that person was… me. Talk about ironic.  She and her family have been among our biggest supporters.  I hope we can both help others as we’ve helped each other.

Meet Matt and Tara and Pat and Jenn and Tracy and Iwona and Vanessa and Brent and Kyle and Joe and too many others: all under 40, former classmates and teammates and friends, having dealt with cancer. Sharing their experiences helped me prepare for mine. I hope I can be as strong and helpful in the future for others as they have been for me.

Finally, meet the Cancer Bear: passed down from family friends of Jen’s, it was with mother Helen and daughter Kathryn in their battles (Helen was given six months to live but fought for over five years before succumbing; Kat is cancer free for four years now and the mother of beautiful little Haylee). The Cancer Bear has been my good luck charm, artifact collector, and multi-religion hub of well wishes and prayers from Catholics, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Hindu, and Muslim family and friends. 

In the picture above, you can see less than HALF of the things I have been sent; I could probably open a Christian Store with all the stuff we couldn’t pin on the bear.  It has been the personification (uh, “bearification”??) of the countless prayers and well-wishes, and has sat there as silent encouragement for each of our hospital stays, and on our night stand in between. I hope I can give the Cancer Bear to some other future survivor, and they can in turn pass him along to another survivor, and so on, until this Bear has a Globetrotter-like won-loss record.

All of these people, and the prayers and thoughts coming from friends and strangers alike, turned this battle from “T.J. vs. Melanoma” to “T.J., his family, his friends, friends of friends, friends of family, family of friends, and lots and lots of other people vs. Melanoma and Cancer in General.”   Now, it is time to not only win this battle, but to help others prepare and deal with theirs. I could never repay all the generosity I have been shown in the last several months, but I can, and will, pay that forward to the newly enlisted members of our little survivors’ fraternity.  Hopefully, that won’t be you, but if it is, just let me know – I am here for you.  Others will be there for you. You are not alone.