Most cancer survivors are familiar with Psalm 23 and the feeling of walking through the valley of the shadow. We also need to remember that there's another side to the valley, where the light shines brightly.
Kevin Berry is an 13-year mantle cell lymphoma survivor, in his third remission. He works on Human Spaceflight programs, is a freelance writer and editor, and supports newly diagnosed patients through his ministry, Taking Vienna. He lives in Central Florida with his wife and adult children.
Photo by Richard S. Graves
All cancer patients are familiar with "the valley of the shadow" — living in darkness and fear, totally aware of our mortality. We sometimes find comfort when our brains are in “logical mode” instead of “emotional distress mode,” in knowing that many cancer patients are cured, go into remission or are able to live in a chronic state with a good quality of life.
One technique that is pretty effective is visualizing the successful end of your cancer journey. For me, an amateur runner, I saw both my treatment and transplant adventures as a marathon. Though the longest race I've ever completed was five miles, I approached the months of chemo, radiation and transplant as if I was running a 26.2-mile race, conquering one mile after the other. Lying there in the chemo room, zonked out of my mind, I played in my mind the vision of reaching the finish line, leaning forward, breaking the tape, with my family and supporters cheering. That vision sustained me through some very dark and scary times.
In my post "Transplants and Triathlons
" I (in a quite braggy way) tell my stories about running actual races after being in remission and then cured. The raw and overwhelming flood of emotion I felt when I actually did cross a finish line was beyond even what I had imagined.
For you, it will probably be a different metaphor or possibly fulfilling a real dream — a trip to Europe, an ocean cruise, climbing a mountain or a long vacation on a tropical beach. It’s impossible to be optimistic all the time, especially during cancer treatment. But having a consistent vision, a movie you can replay in your head over and over during the toughest of times, is amazingly helpful.
You may notice I’ve only addressed half the title of this piece. What does "3,434 days and counting” mean?
My wife and I recently attended an amazing event. Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa holds a bi-annual transplant survivor’s reunion. This year, over 250 patients along with family members, doctors, nurses and other staff gathered in a huge ballroom in a joyous celebration of survival. When we checked in, my name tag had a number on it. I noticed my number was 3,904. I was told that was the number of days since my first transplant. (I was 257 days from my second transplant at the time and was surprised to see how long it had been since my first).
The incredibly moving conclusion of the dinner was a “count up” of survivors. At 3,904, I was cockily sure I would be among the most senior of transplant veterans. Starting at 100 days, many people stood up. The count rapidly reached 1,000; then 2,000; then 3,000. At 3,900, I stood up, maybe the only one at that level. To my delight and amazement, the count continued, getting higher and higher. It culminated at 8,745 days, when a beaming woman stood to thunderous applause. Her transplant was in November 1991. She looked healthy, happy and vital.
I realized what a great idea it is to count your life in days. Years fly by and months last an instant, but we live in the “now," one day at a time. During my 3,434 days (as of this writing) I’ve seen my children turn into fine adults, danced at two weddings and enjoyed our grandchild. I’ve been to high school and college graduations, sat at nine more Thanksgiving dinners, opened presents on nine more Christmas mornings and snuggled to sleep with my wonderful wife thousands of times.
My marathon has become an epic adventure, the 26 miles turning into a cross-continental journey. A standard piece of advice given to newly diagnosed patients is to “hang in there for a year — It will be much better looking back than it is right now, looking forward.”
I think that’s great advice when you’re in the valley. For those of us who have made it into the sunshine on the other end, the advice is even easier. Live each day fully, measuring what’s important against what you learned during the passage. For me, it’s pretty simple. It’s about the people in my life and everything else pales in comparison to the love and joy I find in them.
Besides the other wonderful blogs on CURE, I hope you'll visit my Taking Vienna site. I also recommend 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.