Words have the power to determine the course of our lives - or at the very least, to alter the way we choose to see our future. When I received my cancer diagnosis in a cell phone message (I had asked my surgeon to give me the results of my biopsy over the weekend), I felt the air squeezed out of my lungs.
In my mind I heard the uncertain sounds of my own voice calling my wife to share the bad news. And I saw a vague picture of my future, my goals, my plans; my aspirations and my dreams fade away like the moan of a train whistle receding toward some unknown destination on a very black night. I sank down in a chair as if to anchor myself onto something solid; something reliable. And I watched and listened as my life seemed to race by me in a tangle of thoughts and questions that I had never experienced before.
Other than perhaps the sudden death of a loved one, I can't think of anything that has the power to unhinge what we perceive as the balance of life more than the very abrupt and unforgiving news of our own cancer diagnosis or any other life-threatening illness.
But more astonishing than this is the rapidity with which so many of us adapt to what is essentially a brand new life that sets us up to begin the process of survival. What I found, in my case, was that the message dissipates rather quickly as the details for continuing with our lives and the plan of action to address our disease soon gives way to a path that forces us forward.
Suddenly, there is so much to do and understand and integrate into our routines. Cancer, after all, if nothing else, is a major distraction.
Soon after we become cancer survivors, we are likely to meet others who are part of the 1,762,450 people diagnosed in the U.S. this year who will hear the words advising them that that they too have cancer.
Even though it feels like we are alone in those first weeks following the news of our disease, that sense of isolation is temporary. Support groups are everywhere, including online. Events that benefit cancer survivors are endless. Information and assistance is available in numerous forms, including the cancer and health-related resources from the CURE collection of magazines - all free of charge in print form or online.
Sure, those five distressing words on my answering machine knocked the wind out of my sails and left me feeling like I was alone on a deserted island. The fact that I have male breast cancer, a rare form of the disease, only added to that isolation, but that sense of separation was of my own making. It was the result of the numbing that cancer creates.
I soon found someone else; a guy with breast cancer who was shipwrecked on that island of mine. And then I found another man. And suddenly there was a small tribe of us and then a village and then a community and then a global consortium of men - all of whom heard messages and words revealing that their cancer was just like mine.
And those words changed their lives too.
Ultimately, I've discovered that the words I heard on my cell phone didn't take away the value or the validity of my life. The truth is they added a dimension that I never knew existed. They offered me an invitation to communicate in my own words about the loneliness, the fear and the uncertainty of having cancer. But more importantly, though like so many others I was temporarily blinded, this disease has given me an opportunity to connect with other survivors, to strengthen my resolve and to broaden my view of life. Words do matter. So if you have cancer, I hope you'll join me in declaring "onward and upward!"