Saturday, May 1, 2010

what does it feel like to have cancer? and the call that saved my life.

I've had a few people ask me this - what does it feel like to have cancer? How did you know that something was going on in your body? What were the symptoms?

For me, and for many other people I've talked to or read about, the illness was very asymptomatic. I had a lymph node in my neck that was a little sore so when it didn't get better in a few days I went to the doctor. And if you're reading this blog, you probably know the rest. The point I want to make here is that with many forms of cancer, the cancer can be pretty advanced in your body before you develop significant symptoms. Breast cancer, prostate cancer, colo-rectal cancer, lymphomas, etc. By the time you're displaying acute symptoms, you're in some deep kaka and your survival rate is not so great. In my case, the cancer had probably been growing in my chest and neck for a year. The survival rates for the stage of cancer I have now are very high - but if I had stuck my head in the sand and waited 6 months or a year to go to the doctor, things could have been much worse. Much more painful and longer chemo, much greater possible side effects from chemo/radiation and much lower survival rates. I think the same is true for Susan's experience with breast cancer. In my case, the call I made to the doctor on February 16th of this year will probably result in me living 15-20 years longer than if I had delayed making the call.

So the simple answer to the question of what does it feel like to have cancer is - it feels like you don't have cancer. And that's the most scary part of the illness, I think. And now to the main point to this post:

Many people have asked me over the last 2 1/2 months what they can do to help me. It's taken me a while to figure out a good answer but it occurred to me this week. So here it is:

The best thing you can do to help me is to promise me that you'll be diligent about getting regular diagnostic exams. Some of these exams are a bit uncomfortable and invasive (for both men and women!) so I know that there's a tendency to skip getting your check-up when you're feeling great. But feeling great isn't a guarantee that everything is all good inside you.  And you're making me a promise to do this - right? Talk to your care giver and figure out what the current best practice is because guidelines on diagnostics do change over time based on research and of course your personal history - family history, age, etc. It would really make me feel good to know that one of the benefits of this journey I'm on is that a bunch of people I care about are taking care of themselves and  if there is something wrong, they're getting the bad news early, when the cure rates are higher and the treatment course less obnoxious. My journey through cancer so far has been much easier than many other people, but I can tell you this - I would not wish this experience on anyone. Forget the wisdom, forget the renewed joy in living each day to its fullest. I'd much rather have had no illness, be healthy every day until I was 85 or 90 and then die quietly in my sleep.

So that's my request for your help. It takes some discipline because I'm expecting you to do this year in and year out. Getting one exam and then being a slacker doesn't cut it! You'll know if you're holding true to this promise and I expect you will do this - for me, for you and for your family.

To retread a favorite trekie phrase - let's all live long and prosper !


  1. And we thank you for making that important call!

    (In my case, it was an attentive ultrasound technician who noticed a tumor while looking for something entirely different. Even the wrong test can be helpful!)

  2. yeah, I was thinking of you when I wrote this note. Another example - my mom had a similar experience - my dad went into the doctor for something, my mom mentioned to the doctor that she had felt a lump in a breast self exam and that led to an operation that extended her life for over a decade. Diagnostics are key!