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A Cancer Statistic? Not You, Not Me

By Alpha Ward-Burns

For some, a diagnosis of cancer evokes frightening images of unpleasant treatments and unwanted results. For others, it evokes a surreal state of numbness, as if they are no longer a part of this world. No matter how one reacts emotionally to their diagnosis, one question and one question alone emerges almost immediately.

“Doctor, what are my chances?”

The desire to know the doctor’s belief concerning our probable fate is of overriding importance.

I know. I’ve been there.

Naturally, we want to hear there’s a 100% cure; but most doctors can’t and won’t make us that promise. Still, the answer to the question is typically phased as a percentage.

Fortunately, my doctor had a better answer.

One January morning in 1998, my hip seemed to catch as I swung my feet out of bed. The catch wasn’t debilitating. In fact, I played 9 holes of golf that day. It never occurred to me the problem was anything other than a pulled muscle.

Yet, thirteen days later I found myself in a hospital bed, recovering from exploratory surgery, where masses of tumors had been found in lymph nodes in different parts of my body. The surgeon had done nothing but sew me back up.

The next day a new doctor, an oncologist, came by my hospital room, and I asked him the question: “What are my chances?”

“I prefer not to talk in those terms,” he replied. He explained that statistics come from studies that are usually a few years old, and that most could be considered outdated by the time they are published. And who was to say the factors affecting the specific people in those studies were exactly like the factors present in my case?

I listened, but I wasn’t sure I believed. I had always heard people talk of survival in terms of chances, but I remained quiet as he continued.

He said my situation was serious. The tumors were fused against vital arteries and attempting to remove them was risky as I might be lost on the operating table. We needed to begin treatment the following Monday (this was Friday). We would mount an aggressive counterattack on these renegade cells with high powered chemotherapy and we would be working with one of the best radiologists around.

I was scared. I didn’t want to think about the treatment. I just wanted him to get rid of the cancer.

We agreed I would think about what he had told me and he would come back the next day to answer my questions.

Before he’d arrived that day, a friend dropped a book off for me to read. It was about surviving cancer treatment with the use of meditation and guided imagery. I had no experience with those techniques, but was open to learning about them, as by now I was searching for any support in dealing with the threat before me.

I was not yet convinced by the doctor’s statement concerning “scientific studies.” After all, every person I had ever know or heard of with cancer knew what their chances were. Perhaps he just didn’t want to tell me how desperate my situation really was. I had practiced law for twenty years and was a skeptic. Without corroborating evidence, I did not believe.

I turned to the book on the hospital tray for a needed a diversion and began to read. An entire new world opened up.

I read about the mind/body connection and about medical doctors who believed in the healing power of hope and faith. I read success stories of people who saw their treatments as opportunities for survival, as opposed to dreaded ordeals. I read about finding one’s true self and true healing.

And as I read, a deep-seated truth emerged. A diagnosis is necessary for survival. A prognosis is not. The question I’d asked my doctor the night before was one I didn’t need answered.

I had wanted statistics. I had wanted to know the odds. But I wasn’t a statistic. None of us are. We are each distinctly different human beings, and our lives can only be impacted by statistics if we allow ourselves to believe we are controlled by what may have happened to others.

Through the wisdom of my doctor and the thoughtfulness of a friend with a book, my understanding of my destiny had been reshaped. God made each of us as individuals, with the ability to have individual futures that are unique. If a diagnosis of cancer or some other life threatening event is thrust upon, we are not bound to despair.

We have the God’s permission to help shape our future, and the most destructive thing we can do is believe otherwise.

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