Lucky Me? Facing the Cancer Odds


That cancer strikes at the very fabric of one’s understanding of why things happen the way they do is what makes this illness so insidious.

"Luck is a very thin wire between survival and disaster, and not many people can keep their balance on it." - Hunter S. Thompson

The ways that we survivors explain the occurrence of cancer in our lives range from the sacred, "it’s God’s will," to the profane, "sh*t happens." Whether we call it fate, karma or the luck of the draw, the need to come to some understanding of why cancer strikes seems universal.

In psychological terms, the search for meaning is a search for some comfort from the unbearable burden of life’s uncertainty. The cartoon character Calvin put this fear of life’s randomness succinctly when, hiding under his bed with his tiger friend Hobbes, he said, "It’s either mean or its arbitrary, and either way I’ve got the heebie-jeebies."

That cancer strikes at the very fabric of one’s understanding of why things happen the way they do is what makes this illness so insidious. What determines whether or not someone goes into remission or has a recurrence? Does a roll of the cosmic dice determine whether or not the cancer monster returns? Is it in the genes or in the stars? It’s enough to drive a person insane.

Added to the maddening mix is the "beating the odds" phenomenon, which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "high- stakes gambling." I was never told the odds of surviving my thymic cancer (I believe this was due, in part, to it being so rare as to make calculating survival rates meaningless) and I never asked. I always imagined cancer standing over me like Clint Eastwood in "Dirty Harry" uttering the classic line, "... you got to ask yourself one question, 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do you punk?" For those who want, or need, to know the odds of cancer survival you can visit the less entertaining National Cancer Institute’s online odds calculator here. (Please enter at your own risk!)

Through my conversations with other cancer survivors, and reading the wonderful posts of other CURE contributors, it’s apparent that, like me, many survivors find peace of mind in removing the luck factor by taking active roles in their treatments. Having said that, I have to confess that there are times when the "under the bed" approach seems to make the most sense. The tug of war between the mean or arbitrary nature of existence can easily give rise to a mental fog that makes chemobrain pale by comparison.

I can no longer count the number of times I’ve had the talk with myself about what I will do should I be unlucky enough to have my cancer return. I imagine the courageous version of myself taking it on with all of the dignity and humility that I hear, and read, from other survivors who experience this turn of an unfriendly card. The truth, however, is that I will most likely find myself talking to my doctor about whatever medication is the new treatment for the heebie-jeebies.

In the meantime, I continue to work against the pull toward living in fear of, or being angry at, this cruel disease. I try my best to keep an open heart to the joys that continue to enter my life, seven years after my diagnosis. Even now, one week away from the obligatory six month drawing of blood and follow-up visit, I’m still not sure if I’m lucky or not. I do feel blessed, however, and that works for me ... for now.

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