Sometimes cancer can feel like a prison sentence.
It can be an isolating experience, not unlike going to jail for a crime you never committed. It can leave us feeling very alone; separated from the rest of the healthy world.
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, there were an estimated 18 million cancer cases around the world in 2018. Of these, 9.5 million cases were in men and 8.5 million in women. Male breast cancer, the disease that found its way into my own life, represents a small portion of that figure with only about 2,700 men being diagnosed annually in the U.S.
But no matter how rare or common the disease is, a new diagnosis of cancer can certainly feel like a jail sentence — until we look around and see a lot of other human beings sharing our seemingly singular experience. The sudden sense that we no longer have some sort of control over our lives can be disheartening. And the truth is, or so it seems to me, we never really had that to begin with. But the oppressive confinement that cancer causes can feel like shackles at times, dashing our hopes and hindering our future.
But we're never really alone, nor destined to live in solitary confinement. It's only natural for us to be drawn to people who share our own particular disease. These individuals become the support groups that give us hope as they share their knowledge and experiences so that we may better plan our own strategy for survival.
Eighteen million people with many different cancers is hard to visualize. Where I live in Arizona, our community is made up of folks 55 years of age or older. Statistically, the percentage of people with cancer here should be higher than that of a typical segment of the population that includes all ages. And yet, of the 100 people I know well here, I can think of only five that have spoken of their cancer. And why would they? It's not a subject that often comes up at one of our bingo games or line dance classes. As far as male breast cancer goes, I've not met a single man face-to-face who shares my disease. But I know, follow and support many men via the internet and email.
Reaching out to others who have our own kind of cancer can be an emancipating gesture. And even though our disease may be rare, or advanced or confined to one segment of the population, all of us share one thing.
The cells in our bodies have certain jobs to do. Normal cells divide in an orderly way. Eventually those cells are replaced by new cells, and sometimes those grow out of control. So, despite our gender or age or ethnicity, as survivors we really do have something in common. We're all "cell mates." We have the disease of cancer.
That is the bond that ties us together. Cancer isn't my punishment and I don't view it as a "life sentence." It's just a life experience. And the lesson I've learned from this is that prison cells and cancer cells really don't have to be linked, and the door to wellness may look closed at times, but it never, ever has to be locked.