This morning, I read a story about a man named Orville Kelly who had been diagnosed with lymphoma when he was 42 years old. In telling the story, his wife talked about the depression both of them had slipped into after his diagnosis. He had been given six months to three years to live. Then one day, Kelly, who wrote for a local newspaper, decided that enough was enough. Yes, his time in this world might be short but none of us would reside here forever. Death loomed ahead of us all and today... today he was not dead. He was alive and he needed to act like it!
After talking things over with his wife (they had avoided talking about cancer), they shared his diagnosis with their children. He decided to share his cancer journey with his readers and he eventually formed a support group for cancer survivors called "Make Today Count" in 1974.
Reading this story took me back to an autumn day back in 1975. I was 14 years old and had just started my sophomore year of high school. I remember coming home from school and my father was there. He told me to sit down on the couch beside him and then he broke the news to me. He had colon cancer. I remember the moment of stunned silence and then thinking, "Cancer. People die from cancer." My eyes filled with tears and I was unable to speak.
My father repeated his words and gently but firmly said, "I am going to die." He paused for a moment and then said, "And so are you and so is everyone else... someday. It's just that we have a better idea of how long it might be until I die."
Before you think this was a cruel way to break the news, I need to tell you something. My father's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was seven years old. She lost her battle with cancer when he was 14. My dad knew what it was like to learn that a parent had cancer and he knew what it was like to lose one when you are a teenager. I know from personal experience, especially since I too have now been on both sides of the coin, that the best way to cope with cancer as well as help those you love cope with your disease is to be honest about it. Though he didn't know it, my dad was not only teaching me how to cope with his diagnosis, he was teaching me how to deal with my own cancer diagnosis that I would receive 33 years later.
Often times cancer is diagnosed when someone becomes aware of a lump or other abnormality. Something does not look or feel right so they go in for an exam. However, sometimes cancer is discovered during a routine screening and the discovery that you might have cancer literally comes from out of nowhere. That is exactly what happened to me. One moment I was racing about, getting ready to head off for work. I decided to check my email, learned that a test result had been posted in my electronic medical file, logged on to check it believing that it would say my mammogram was normal and instead learned I had a spiculated mass. Needless to say, when my HMO learned of this... bug... steps were immediately so that this sort of news would be delivered in person in the future, preferably in a caring and compassionate manner with someone close by to hold your hand and give your their shoulder to cry on. If you know someone with cancer, don't just tell them you are there for them... be there with them and let them cry and tell you they are afraid.
In the days before my surgery, no one had any idea what my prognosis was because no one knew if cancer cells had managed to reached the "super highways" of my lymphatic system or my bloodstream and were traveling to other parts of my body. I did not know if I had only a few months, a few years or a long stretch of time (as of this writing, it has now been seven years since my cancer diagnosis). After God picked me up off the floor, however, He reminded me of what my father had said so long ago.
It was a beautiful day in late August, 1977. I had recently passed my driving test and my dad had given me a key ring with a set of keys he'd had cut for me. He had been battling cancer for nearly two years and had gone through two surgeries and now had a colostomy. He was also now in a wheelchair because he was at high-risk of breaking bones should he fall. I remember him telling me he would like to go for a drive with me and he asked me to do the driving.
I drove him about a mile to Minnehaha Falls, where our family would often picnic and hike the trail from the bottom of the Falls to the Mississippi River. I pushed his chair to where we could watch the water fall over the edge of the cliff. He sent me back to the car for something and when I returned, I remember stopping for a moment to watch him looking at the cascading water. While no one had said anything, I knew he would never be here again but today... today... I could stand beside him, slip my hand into his, give him a kiss and say "I love you" so I did. Less than two months later he was gone.
The last words I said to my dad were, "I love you and I will see you in the morning." before kissing him goodnight and leaving his hospital room. My last memory of him was that although he could no longer speak and he weighted less than 80 pounds, he exerted his last bit of strength to wrap his arms around me and hold me tight. That memory was his gift to me, the expression of his love for his daughter. He had only about four hours left in this world but he made today count.
Though not a Christian until three weeks before his death, my dad, who became disabled at age 19, taught me that life is not always going to turn out the way you expect. In fact, more often than not, it doesn't. We can either allow ourselves to be overwhelmed and immersed in self-pity or we can do what Orville Kelly, my dad and others have learned. Today you are living so make today count!
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