The Other Four Horsemen

Kevin gets philosophical, sharing deeply wrought insights in a manner that, just possibly, might actually make sense
PUBLISHED August 12, 2015
Kevin Berry is an 11-year mantle cell lymphoma survivor and undergoing his third bone marrow transplant. He works on Human Spaceflight programs, is a freelance writer and editor, and supports newly diagnosed patients through his ministry, Taking Vienna (www.takingvienna.blogspot.com). He lives in Central Florida with his wife and adult children.
Many of us are familiar with the expression, if not the details, of The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. The Christian Bible, in the book of Revelation, tells a horrible and eerie story where the characters represent Conquest, War, Famine and Death. Through the centuries, they have come to represent what happens at the end of the world, or at least an allegory of the end of the Roman Empire.

I’ve been in the cancer business for a few months short of a decade. Over those years, through dozens of chemo sessions, many hospital stays, and hundreds of hours in oncologist’s waiting rooms, I’ve seen a wide range of human behavior. All of it good. I truly mean, through all I’ve seen and participated in, I cannot remember a single instance of someone being selfish, rude, or mean spirited. I’m sure sometimes, some horribly sick, beaten down person wasn’t completely civilized in something they said, but in no case was it done on purpose (Pause for reality check. I bet a bunch of health care professionals are rolling their eyes right now. While Your Mileage May Vary, I stand by my experience).

Is this because cancer only affects “good” people? Of course not. Is it possible, that in some perverse way, being hammered with badness forges people into better human beings? Could it be a matter of a sudden change of perspective, a true reality check? I tend to think so. In my post The Mechanics Of Inspiration, I talk about how regular people become superstars totally against their will.

A few years ago, one of my daughters was a victim of a horrible car accident. I was going through radiation treatments at the time, so it worked out that I took some of the night shifts at her bedside, to keep my treatments going during the day. Watching her incredible struggle, and having hours to reflect on my own experience, I realized that she, along with so many of my fellow cancer victims, have their own Four Horsemen. I think that we exhibit the traits of Courage, Dignity, Grace and Humor.

Courage in cancer is different than what Hollywood shows. This isn’t the running-into-a-raging-surf-to-save-a-child type, nor like going into heavy fire to save a wounded comrade. This is a grinding, slow motion, day after day battle to keep going. Rolling out of bed (literally, since you are too weak to climb up and out); leaning on the bathroom counter, wondering who is the zombie in the mirror. Giving yourself the Cancer Patient’s Pep Talk: “Today. I can do Today. Get dressed, go to work, face the world once again. Tomorrow is so far in the future I can’t imagine it.” Like single parents, those with other chronic diseases, and the desperately poor, courage is a constant process, not a single, glorious event.
 
Dignity is the first victim of cancer. Normal people who would never dream of appearing in a skimpy gown in public parade down hospital corridors, exposing most of their all. We whip open blouses, drop our pants, and display private parts to anyone in scrubs without a second thought. We sit in rows in chemo rooms, nauseated and moaning, with perfect strangers a foot away. We talk, publically to strangers, about our bowel movements and seeping wounds. Yet, once you strip away the veneer of modesty you realize we are all human, more similar than different. Dignity isn’t in your clothing, your carefully crafted speech, or your modesty. It’s in being calm, controlled, and peaceful in your spirit, knowing that true dignity is in how you act in adversity, not how you follow society’s carefully constrained conventions.
 
Grace is different than dignity. Dignity is how you act about yourself, while grace is how you act to other people. It’s easy to be short tempered when you’re sick, worried (literally) to death, and frustrated at the slow pace of the medical machine. But mostly, we keep things in perspective and realize that the people at the desks, technicians, nurses, doctors, and housekeeping staff are all overworked, overstressed, and hampered by processes they probably don’t agree with. I had an occasion the other day, where a tech, usually very good, made a bad stick. She apologized, tried again, finally managed to get it going, drew the blood, finished up, looked at her computer, and her whole body sagged. She’d missed a tube. She looked like she was going to cry, and fully expected me to be angry or disgusted. Truthfully, I wasn’t a happy Kevin at that point, but by now I know these people. I made the choice to be gracious. Truly, I’ve been stuck hundreds of times, so one more just isn’t a huge deal. I’m proud of myself for taking the high road. I’ve seen this hundreds of times: dying people, full of grace, caring for their caregivers. Blessing nurses, office staff, and fellow patients when everyone would understand if they wanted to be selfish.
 
Let’s talk about the humorous side of cancer. Yes, that’s what I said. One inside secret to chemo rooms is that when you combine heavily drugged people, stripped of most inhibitions, and join them together in a common bond of disease, you get a lot of laughter. Cancer people just plain like to laugh. It’s like the old cliché, “laughing in the face of death.” Well, we do. Gentle teasing, bald jokes, and outright guffaws echo through these horrible places. If you are a cancer patient, I suggest you search the internet for “bad cancer jokes.” If you are a family member or friend, DON’T make that search. Grim humor is for the afflicted, not those hurting on the sidelines! Among my extensive collection of horrible, vulgar cancer jokes, I only have one “clean” joke.

What do you call insects with cancer? MalignANT and BEEnign.

So, to those four Biblical characters, in the timeless words from Monty Python’s Holy Grail: We spit in your face! You are an empty-headed animal food trough wiper! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!

To my fellow cancer buddies: ride with me on our Four Horsemen! Courage, Dignity, Grace and Humor.

Besides the other wonderful blogs on CureToday’s site, I hope you'll visit my Taking Vienna site. I also recommend a T.J. and Jen Sharpe’s blog, Patient #1. For cancer patients and caregivers, and melanoma patients in particular, it’s a great resource. I also encourage readers to visit the Be The Match site to learn about registering as a potential stem cell donor.
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