My mother’s father, a dressmaker, was a man I cannot remember speaking a word, though I met him a few times when I was a little boy.
This was the early 1970s and he had been afflicted with cancer of the brain.
My mother, who would later become a nurse, explained to me that doctors had been forced to slice out the bad parts of my grandfather’s brain in order to keep him alive.
So, he couldn’t speak, not after his lobotomy. He was a pale-skinned shell in a wheelchair, a husk of a human being whose blank expression and grunts frightened me almost as much as the disease that had done so much damage.
Cancer. To this day, just reading and hearing the word chills my guts.
So, you can imagine how little I enjoy typing those six letters. But I am going to regardless because every day in this country more than 4,800 people learn that they’ve been diagnosed with cancer.
None of them write a newspaper column, so let me take a moment to offer them a voice and to give a voice to their tens of thousands of loved ones who hear that diagnosis and feel terror, frustration, pain and anger.
Damn you, cancer.
Yes, I understand that’s not the worst profanity you can use. I apologize if you’re offended, but to be honest, the six-letter “c-word” really calls for a four-letter word.
As you read this, a man I consider a brother is being pumped full of poison five days a week to kill the cancer that attacked first his testicles then his lymph nodes.
He’s a warrior, strong in body, heart and mind. So, I cannot fathom what the hell cancer was thinking messing with him. But maybe cancer thinks it’s the baddest dude on the block, given that it kills 600,000 Americans every single year.
Cancer is wrong. And I mean that in every sense of the word.
A few days into his chemotherapy, I went to sit with Bryan at the Mayo Clinic during his treatment. To see him and listen to him, you’d think he was suffering from nothing more nagging than a head cold.
We talked about golf, politics, his beautiful wife and niece, all our usual topics.
His strength gave me the strength to keep it together until I left his cubicle. But out in the third-floor lobby a glimpse of something brought me to tears.
There were so many people waiting. Dozens. Scores. I mean, it was one big lobby and it felt populated as far as my eye could see.
Cancer had bullied its way into every life in the room.
Then it occurred to me that I was standing in one waiting room on one floor of one oncology clinic in one city in one state.
You can do the math.
Cancer, it seems, grows like cancer, endless multiplying, invading, destroying, gobbling up lives.
In the car before I lost my nerve, I called my primary care doctor and made an appointment. For years, I have been too afraid to get any sort of cancer screening.
This week, I confessed my failure and got the referrals I need to get a colonoscopy and a prostate screening and a full examination of my sun-weathered skin.
I’m not one to give advice, but I suggest you do the same if you’re the right age.
The doctor scolded me a bit for skipping years of exams, but she seemed to understand when I told her about my sudden burst of inspiration. Why now?
Because cancer be damned, that’s why. In this world, I cannot think of a single belief I hold more strongly.