A male breast cancer survivor recalls remarkable gifts of goodwill.
My wife battled stage 4 ovarian cancer for several years before she died from the disease. She was 47 years old and the year was 1997. Science, medicine and cancer awareness have improved dramatically since then.
Because neither of us had any experience with cancer, hospitals or serious illness, we were eagerly looking for advice and consultation with every decision we had to make. There were choices of medications, methods, procedures and programs, and we relied on her oncologist and a team of heroic nurses to guide us.
How would we manage the long drives from rural Oregon into Portland for treatments and be available for blood work and chemotherapy? What does one do when your hair falls out and you become too nauseous to eat? What happens when you cash in your retirement fund and the money finally runs out? How can you work with frightened family members and friends? Our list was a long one.
The first thing I remember during those early days were my neighbors. We lived on a small lake in the Oregon wilderness, so isolated that our community relied on our own water treatment plant at one end of the lake and a sewage treatment plant at the other — all paid for and maintained by the residents.
It was paradise to us. That is, until cancer found its way into our lives.
There was always a cheerful neighbor stopping by with hot soup or homemade bread. That’s just the way folks were out there. If you got home after dark on a winter night, somebody had probably dropped by your house to light the wood stove for you. We didn’t have locks on the doors.
I’ll never forget the day that half a dozen neighbors showed up with brooms, mops and garden tools. One of them gave my wife a long massage to ease her muscle pain. They kicked me out of the house, announcing that I was to put on my running shoes, go for my daily workout in the hills and not to return home until dinner time. When I walked in, the house was spotless, the garden weeded and dinner was on the table.One day I received a call from a cancer organization in Portland and was told that a number of hotels in the city had donated a block of rooms for out-of-town cancer survivors arriving for chemotherapy and other treatments. We simply made a call to the front desk and our reservations were granted. As far as I could tell, not a single employee at any of the hotels knew who we were. We were treated like any other guests, with the exception that our bill was always paid for.
As my wife’s condition became more complicated with an autoimmune disease and lung infections, our weekly trips into Portland became more difficult. It was then that a neighbor delivered a lovely travel trailer to our hospital in Portland where, to our astonishment, the staff had agreed to allow us to live. We had a spot in a secluded area of the property, and it was there that we stayed for the next six months.
The American Cancer Society invited us stop by to choose a wig made of natural hair for my wife. One day, an elderly neighbor visited and pushed an envelope into my hand. We had run out of cash and our retirement accounts had been depleted at this point with thousands of dollars in medical bills. The neighbor gave me a sly smile and said, “Why don’t the two of you do something outrageous?!”
I opened the envelope to find 25 one hundred dollar bills. A few weeks later, with the approval of our medical staff, we were on a plane to Ecuador and a vacation to the Amazon River — a trip that we had often fantasized about.
This sort of compassion and generosity amazed me at the time. Those of us who are caught in the throes of cancer learn to accept these gifts as we trudge along in our day-to-day routines, but sometimes the full impact of such generosity is somewhat intangible in our mission to survive.
But now, as I manage my own cancer diagnosis and the life changes that go along with it, I think back on those times almost 20 years ago and marvel at the spirit of giving and the astonishing lengths that folks were willing to go to help us.
The inspiration and hope we receive as cancer survivors are the real gifts, and they are as rich and varied as the nearly fifteen million of us who wake up daily having experienced the presence of cancer in our bodies.
Perhaps it’s a word from a friend or a thought in a blog or a line in a song that carries the rewards we receive on any given day. Much of the time it won’t be as obvious as the volunteer who brings food, or the envelope of money, but as we open up to receiving such treasures, we allow ourselves the pleasure of “paying forward” the cycle of compassion and the immeasurable gift of kindness that gives meaning to every human life.