Throwing Gasoline on the Cancer Fire


A seven-year cancer survivor writes how the disease is a delicate balancing act and how secondary illnesses can fuel the cancer fire.

The longer we live with a cancer diagnosis, the greater the chances are that we’ll develop other challenging disorders in our bodies and in our lives. There really is nothing startling in this prediction; it’s just a matter of simple probability projection.

Probability is the branch of mathematics concerning numerical descriptions of how likely an event is to occur, or how likely it is that a proposition is true. Put very simply, the older I get, with or without my breast cancer, the more likely it is that other organs in my body will experience the natural erosion that is inescapable in life.

To some, this may seem like an unpleasant way to look at our lives; especially those of us with compromised immune systems, late stage cancer or daily struggles with pain. But other’s may be so adept at dealing with the reality of cancer that a secondary illness is just that — secondary.

What I’ve learned in the last seven years since my breast cancer diagnosis in 2014 is that the events and issues that distract me from the business of cancer; whether it’s been my surgeries for non-cancer issues such as my double full knee replacements or my hernia operation or my kidney stones; these diversions have given me a strange sort of respite from my ongoing “cancer stuff.”

But how do we cope when another life-threatening disorder challenges our already compromised health? How do we manage compounding symptoms that double down on our struggle to survive?

Cancer is a tricky business and often difficult to measure. As I’ve watched and learned from other survivors over the years, I’ve been moved and often inspired by the men and women I’ve met along the way. It’s only natural to compare our experiences with folks who are facing similar challenges as the ones we face. We may look at the stage and grade of cancer in individuals who share our disease and make treatment choices and survival strategies based on the myriad statistics from those who are similar to us. But with an orphan disease such as male breast cancer which represents a mere 1% of all cancers of the breast, the statistical path gets a little muddied.

I’ve now met a significant number of men who have more than one cancer to contend with. But perhaps the best lessons I received in surviving multiple health issues happened to me almost 25 years ago. My wife, who succumbed to the ravages of stage 4 ovarian cancer in 1997, was well into her third year of chemotherapy and clinical trials when I first heard the word “polymyositis.” Suddenly there was a new illness to contend with. Polymyositis is an autoimmune condition, which means the body can attack its own tissues.

I remember feeling as though all the effort I had made to research, understand and relate to my wife’s condition had suddenly exploded in a new and inconceivable direction. Symptom overload, along with all the scientific gibberish that did little to educate me, was a new and unexpected phenomenon.

But the truth is that cancer, no matter how devastating it is to us and those around us can sometimes be the least of our immediate worries. That word “immediate” is the all-important factor in this case. Cancer is a delicate balancing act. The trick, I suppose, lies in our ability to shift our center of gravity (and I’m referring to “severity” and not the invisible force that pulls objects toward each other).

When dealing with multiple illnesses, symptoms and treatments, the notion of “feeding the fire” where a secondary illness is concerned, can burn itself out and lead us to a new directive, a new voice and perhaps new choices. I prefer to think of it as “dousing the flames.”

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