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Health > More Health StoriesSpring 2010 IS Magazine

Surviving Cancer

And re-entering the human race.

By Robert Pennybacker

In November 1999, at age 43, I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and underwent surgery to remove the tumor and a quarter of my colon. That was bad enough, but in December of that year, a follow-up CT scan showed a tumor in my liver. I was stage four. And there is no stage five.

Ten years later, I am in remission. And I am still processing the experience.

For most, the year 2000 was the dawn of a new millennium. For me, it was a year of darkness, a crossroads at the intersection of life and death. It was an anxiety-filled year of trips between Hawai‘i and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, countless tests, liver resection surgery, and the fog of chemotherapy. A pre-existing low-grade depression was exacerbated by my emotional trauma and chemo drugs.

Until then, mortality had been an abstract concept for me, something I would eventually have to deal with, but not for a few decades. A cancer diagnosis, especially stage-four cancer, brings that far-off event smack dab in front of you.

Hearing my diagnosis was a roller-coaster ride, at least as far as my body was concerned. I actually felt myself plummet as the outside world rushed by me. Psychologically, I was Alice through the looking glass. My world flipped: Left was right and right was left. It seemed as though nothing would ever be the same again.

I was not proud of how I dealt with my illness. Fear, paranoia and indecisiveness ruled my thoughts and actions. I had always heard of people’s heroic battles against cancer, but felt inadequately equipped for the fight. Well-meaning friends and relatives gave me books on the power of positive thinking and profiles of people whose lives had been turned around by cancer. One author had actually started an “exceptional cancer patient” society. I felt like a minority back in the days of exclusionary private clubs. I knew I would never be accepted into that club.

And yet – through some inner strength I never knew I had, excellent medical care, and, mostly, the love, prayers and generosity of loved ones – I survived. Looking back, the experience didn’t make me a hero (far from it) or a fighter. Some people become these things after a cancer diagnosis, and that’s fine. But the rest of us don’t need to be intimidated by the amazing, inspiring accomplishments of the exceptional patients who have walked the road we are about to traverse. However we walk that road – whether we stride, stumble, break land-speed records, or hobble – we each do it one step at a time.

After I completed my final chemo treatment, my father wrote me a letter. In it, he pointed out one positive outcome from the whole ordeal: He no longer held me up on a pedestal. At first, I didn’t understand, but now I do. The experience allowed me to be something more than his perfect son. It allowed me to be a human being, with my own strengths and weaknesses.

We are born human. As we grow up, ego, a false sense of immortality, and a preoccupation with nonessentials cause us to drift. Catastrophic illnesses, and second chances, get us back in line.

Today, I am thankful to be alive and have rejoined the club to which I have always qualified for membership: The human race.

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