A friend named Karen recently underwent surgery to remove a tumor. In the hospital’s recovery room, as soon as she was conscious enough to speak coherently, she exclaimed, “There, that bastard’s gone. Get me my cellphone, I have work to do.”

After the death of my father, a Hospice nurse told me that she could look around the gravely ill in an oncologist’s waiting room and pick out the people who would likely survive simply by sizing up their attitudes. She believed there are people who have a true “survivor” attitude, and there are people who don’t.

Several years ago a hospital lab reported that my somewhat routine tissue sampling showed “findings consistent with endometrial cancer.” After some hours of initial shock and disbelief, I passed through what I later realized was a fairly normal pattern of reaction. In the first week or so, positive thinking and attitude (later recognized as denial) was my stance: “I will be fine. I will beat this.” Then it hit me: the terror of facing the Opponent and possibly losing the match. Insomnia, anxiety attacks and private tears defined me. Next came action: arranging to donate blood in case it was needed during surgery, talking with other “survivors” about visualization techniques (PacMan gobbling up cancer cells is one I remember), positive thinking, consideration of the all-carrot-juice diet, and so on.

Not quite three weeks after hearing the original diagnosis, I learned that there had been a mistake. My tissue sample was actually “consistent with normal endometrial tissue.” The second opinion threw in a suggestion that “the patient should be monitored and followed closely,” probably as much to absolve the first doc’s error as to protect me.

This news – this commutation of my medical sentence – had an immediate effect. Tears of relief and suppressed thoughts poured from me. My “positive attitude,” my cancer-cell-gobbling PacMan, my “belief” that I would be a “survivor” all were seen by me for what they really had been: anattempt at having the right attitude.

I think of other friends fighting to beat the bastard and to stay alive, and I hope they are like Karen – not like me. I hope they truly believe they can win. I hope they are people the Hospice nurse would identify as survivors. We are who we are.

May 9, 2006


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