Writing ‘Just in Case’ Letters as a Cancer Survivor

One cancer survivor explains why a friend writes letters to his loved ones before each surgery “just in case.”

“Are you scared?” I asked my good friend Paul recently. He was gearing up for a surgery to replace his aortic valve due to damage caused by radiation treatments and chemo to cure his Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Paul is what I call one of my comrades in the ranks of cancer survivorship. Our survival had brought us together as friends, sharing many of the same journeys health wise. In fact, I had recently been told I would need the same surgery Paul needed. Now I was looking for some consolation and maybe some comfort from a guy who was in line before me.

“No, I’m not scared,” he thoughtfully replied. “Each time I go into one of my surgeries I write out my letters to family, just in case…” My spirit sunk a little as I heard him say those words, but he then went on “No one has ever had to open those letters yet.” I thought about it a moment. It reminded me of my umbrella policy. If I bring my umbrella out, it won’t rain. I used my umbrella policy when I bought my burial plot as well. It seemed not only practical but soothing in its own way.

Paul is more of a realist than I. I’d rather listen to the spirits in the wind and believe in the universal power of thoughts becoming things. He shared that he knew his time was limited (well we all know this, but survivors are more keenly aware). “I just want to feel better.” I resonated with that. Lately I had felt like an 80-year-old as I ascended the steps at work and was having chest pains and basically feeling limited, which pissed me off. He was pissed too. He was noticing how short of breath he had become, and we both spoke about the effects of treatments on our quality of life.

While at a funeral service Paul had asked the funeral director if they could potentially take the cremated remains of someone and shoot it off in a skyrocket. The director’s reply was something to the effect of “What others don’t know won’t get anyone in trouble.” And it made me giggle because I often pictured my send-off with its own BANG, granted not of the “Oh say can you sing” variety. Survivors have the ability to turn a scary situation into a comical one. I was making jokes about aortic valve replacement and the use of pig valves or cow. “So, I can choose bacon or beef? You’ll smell me coming when I enter the room from now on.”

Paul’s “just in case” letters are ones all survivors have even if they are more figurative than literal. We go into everything with the “What if?”For many of us this includes talking to our kids about what’s happening and having the child (mine happen to be big children, ages 20 and 19) asking for some reaffirmation if we will be OK. The thing is we don’t know, and that answer is not what our kids want to hear. So, we speak softly and carry that big stick – that big stick being our built-up courage we have pulled together and grown through our years as a SURVIVOR.

Those “just in case” letters for Paul were helping him to know he was still going to take care of everyone and help them emotionally even if he physically couldn’t say the words himself.

Paul had his surgery this morning.The “just in case” letters remain sealed in their envelopes, and he once again goes on living.

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