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Many families feel the grip of cancer

Cancer is serious business. There aren't many families that haven't felt the grip of this dread disease or series of diseases.

My brother Gary died of cancer many years ago at the age of 30. It took four years from beginning to end, years of remission, hope, recurrence, discouragement and dread. His particular brand was testicular cancer, almost always fatal at that time, but curable now if caught early enough. His boys, both under five when he passed away, had a great mother, but no dad for most of their growing up years. Hospice services were not available for him at that time and so many visitors were calling at the hospital his last days that I never got an opportunity to say a proper goodbye. I deeply regret that to this day.

Our daughter, Goldilocks, once worked for the American Cancer Society, organizing volunteer workers and planning fundraising events. I have always been impressed by the Relay for Life, a celebration of the lives of people who have battled cancer, the ones who lost the battle and those now fighting back against the disease. The Relay is especially solemn after dark, with the luminaria, glowing white bags with candles inside, each one representing a cancer victim, a current cancer patient or a cancer survivor.

Teams of survivors, families and backers walk around the track to highlight their fundraising efforts. It is a dramatic demonstration of support.

Name one good reason for a tattoo. Ok, I'll concede "Mom" and the U.S. Marine Corps ("Semper Fidelis"), but snakes and dragons leave me cold. However, two weeks ago I talked to a cancer survivor, Lorree (the curly headed waitress I've written about before) and she showed me a tattoo on her back, just below her neck between her shoulders, with the familiar pink ribbon loop and the words "Cancer Survivor."

What a great way to celebrate a major health victory. But it gets even better -- her sister, who hasn't had cancer, and doesn't really like tattoos, got a tattoo just like it to support Loree. Hurray for both of them.

If you get cancer, it's a scary diagnosis, so you probably need friends, family or somebody to talk to. If you're a columnist, you may even need to write about it. I don't have cancer by the way, but a weekly columnist for the McLean Connection in McLean, Virginia, by the name of Kenneth Lourie, reported in a June, 2009 column that he had been diagnosed at the age of 54 with stage IV lung cancer (a terminal prognosis with only 13 months to 2 years to live). The column was titled "Dying to Find Out, Sort Of." He has already survived 39 months and in that time written about 150 columns. Many have been about his "journey, per se, of a terminal cancer patient attempting to survive the emotional, physical and spiritual toll such a diagnosis can have."

I have read five of the columns, all about his battle with cancer. My first reaction was that writing one cancer column after another seemed like overdoing it. How much bad news can his readers absorb week after week? But with a careful second reading, it became obvious that cancer was dominating his life and any other subject seemed trivial. He said "I've been told by my oncologist that he can't cure me, he can only treat me... Cancer is insidious. It affects you physically for sure, but at least for me, emotionally even more. " And for him, "Writing about my experiences provides me a much needed outlet." So he writes because he needs to. Here's how he sums it up:

"Once I started writing, I couldn't stop. Three years later, nearly 150 columns have been published. Occasionally, I'll get off the cancer train (if only it were that easy) and write a non-cancer column, but when your life is consumed by something (as much as I wish it weren't and as hard as I try to prevent it), it's sort of difficult to ignore. Writing helps, for me. Part catharsis, part selfish, part greater good, but mostly because it brings me pleasure. And when your diagnosis is terminal, sometimes pleasure is hard to find."

Cancer isn't fair -- it affects the young (even infants) and old, the very good and the not so good, the just and unjust. We all have seen how brutal it can be physically, but maybe we need somebody like Kenneth Lourie to tell us, in excruciating detail, what a crushing weight it is emotionally, so that we can understand what Kenneth, Gary, Loree and countless other victims have gone through.

That way, we, the healthy, can provide a patient ear and the emotional, spiritual and financial support necessary to be of some help in the battle.