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Cancer can feel like a ticking time bomb. Here's how one cancer survivor diffused it.
It's July and I am traveling in Poland, my male breast cancer in check, enjoying the experiences of visiting this faraway land for the second time. My last visit here was to run the Warsaw Marathon in 2008, six years before cancer was to make its unexpected entrance into my life.
This time around, I’m here to speak at a convention about the benefits of “Laughter Yoga” for many of us who are faced with a life-threatening illness. I never expected a bomb threat on my German train to interfere with my mission here, but like the very cancer I experience and have come here to talk about, life often takes us on a path far different from the course we have charted.
Shortly after boarding the fast train from Berlin to Warsaw, things began to take an unexpected turn. My wife and I had reserved a first-class compartment and were lucky to have it to ourselves for the duration of what was supposed to be a four-hour trip.
As the sun set along our route, we were anticipating arriving in Warsaw at 11 p.m. with a comfortable hotel room waiting for us. After an uneventful ride for a few hours, the train suddenly slowed down quite dramatically and we assumed that we would stop briefly to let another train pass. After 20 minutes went by, I could see passengers in the hallway, visibly concerned that we were at a stand-still. Speaking no Polish, I was at a loss to understand what was going on. It was an uneasy feeling that I recognized from a situation I had been in before, and soon it became apparent to me that was reliving the emotional turmoil that accompanied my cancer diagnosis and which, to some degree, was still with me three years into my survival.
We all go through times of darkness, where our path is confusing and our choices unclear, but cancer survivors are particularly adept at dealing with moments that test our confidence and challenge our resolve. I expected this situation to resolve quickly.
But when an English-speaking conductor finally revealed to me that we might have a bomb onboard our train, I was gripped by a feeling of helplessness, in part because no one could adequately explain to me what was happening, and because it soon became clear that the train personnel were deliberately keeping things vague to avoid any sense of panic among the passengers.
Instead, this tactic created some obvious anger in many of the passengers, mostly because they had no idea where the suspected explosive device was hidden, along with the fact that they had no clue when we might arrive in Warsaw.
When I am under stress or overly tired, I still feel a tightness in my chest where my mastectomy scar has left me with a good deal of nerve damage. I was feeling it at that moment.
I considered taking my wife and all of our luggage off the train, finding a motel and continuing the next day, but a cell phone call to a friend with access to his computer showed that we were in a very desolate area of the countryside and the nearest village was unlikely to have any lodging or even a restaurant.
“What would I do with my own cancer strategy in these circumstances?” I wondered. If the bomb represented a return of the cancer I believe is gone, would I be fearful? Very possibly for a while. Would I be angry? Most definitely not. Would I look at my options, choose the one I felt would likely succeed and move on?
I pushed all of our luggage toward the glass doors of our coach to help prevent shrapnel from flying, should the explosive be nearby. The lights had been turned off in all of the compartments, and only the faint glow of stars above Poland gave us an opportunity to see outside in the blackness. Policemen ran up and down the tracks. Occasionally, some official passed by our compartment and peered across our luggage at the two of us without saying a word.
We sat for a long time, and I was able to imagine a bomb flash happening so quickly that we would likely feel no pain. Again, the thought of abandoning the train and running into the darkened fields crossed my mind. We might be cold and wet and without shelter, but we would live.
A cancer diagnosis throws us into a slurry of quick decisions, lots of emotions and precious little time to make any sense of it all. Ultimately, however, though we might be drawn to the idea of running, we come to the realization that our “cancer bomb” is part of us and we are forced to make the choices we’re challenged with.
I don’t remember which one of us said we needed some music, but suddenly my cell phone was in my hand and I had chosen a series of songs we had recorded from a line-dancing class we had recently enrolled in. I turned up the sound and we held hands in the darkness of our compartment.
And we danced. And then we laughed.
We sat for nearly four hours on the track until, with no word of explanation and not a train employee in sight, we began to move.
In the end, there was no bomb. We arrived in Warsaw, six hours behind schedule and found our hotel room, checking in at 10:00 in the morning. The hotel had heard about our bomb scare on the news and gave us an extended check out. Catching about four hours of deep sleep, we awoke to continue our Poland adventure, and our lives. In my case, it’s still a life with male breast cancer following close behind, but for now at any rate, the bomb I carry inside has been defused.