Is this when the wheels start to come off?

I have a friend who is battling colon cancer. She has undergone several series of chemotherapy over the past year and has yet to receive an “all clear” diagnosis from her doctors. Each time she thinks she is done, they’ve found new reasons for concern. After completing her last round of chemotherapy, she is now in a wait-and-see holding pattern and we are all cautiously optimistic.

Another friend is currently undergoing chemotherapy for Lymphoma.  She is one month into her treatments and after another 4 – 5 months her doctors will do another evaluation. She is getting a lot of support from her husband and friends, and we are cautiously optimistic about her outcome.

A neighbor who is also a good friend had a mastectomy a few years ago when a small tumor was discovered in her left breast. Recently, during a routine follow-up with her oncologist, it was discovered that her HCG levels were unusually high. High HCG levels are normal in pregnant women; high levels in a non-pregnant woman can be an indicator of ovarian cancer. She will get her test results later this week and her friends and family are cautiously optimistic that she will get a clean bill of health.

Then, just the weekend, I called a friend that I’ve known since grade school regarding an upcoming get-together. She told me that her attendance was up in the air at this time because her husband was recently diagnosed with severe Myelodysplastic Syndromes (MDS), a bone marrow disorder. In general, the prognosis for patients with advanced MDS isn’t encouraging, but she is doing her best to maintain a cautiously optimistic perspective for her husband and her family.

Hope

These four medical challenges are not the only ones faced by friends and acquaintances; I know a few who have battled cancer and won (at least for now) and several others who are living with MS and other long-term health issues.  But, these are the most recent and I can’t shake the feeling that there seems to be an uptick in the number of serious diagnoses received by friends, friends of friends, and their family members – all close to my age.

In general, when we reach retirement age, we are focused on our finances and our emotional well-being. Many also realize that it is important to exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet. When we think about the future, our concern is often how to ensure adequate care in our advanced age. I don’t think most of us put a lot of thought into facing an early death – of either ourselves or our loved ones.

A recent article in the New York Times titled Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer discusses how cancer is slowly overtaking heart disease as the number 1 cause of death. Due to an increased focus on the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet, and the availability of medications to control blood pressure and cholesterol, heart disease is less likely to affect someone between 55 and 85. Because of the way cancers develop (over time, due to errors in cell evolution), just the fact that we have lived a long time makes us susceptible to these cell mutations.

Although there have been a lot of strides made in the treatment of some cancers, preventing it in the first place seems to hold the most promise. Governments do this by improving sanitation, regulating and banning certain toxins, and promoting research and the development of vaccines. On the individual level, we can make sure we pay attention to what we eat and get plenty of exercise to keep our weight at a healthy level, stop smoking – and if you don’t smoke, stay away from second-hand smoke, and avoid excessive sun exposure. Of course none of this is a guarantee: not one of the four friends mentioned at the beginning are overweight or have poor eating habits, they don’t smoke, and none of their cancers resulted from too much sun exposure.

I’m not sure what the takeaway from all of this is. I don’t want to live my life in fear of what could be waiting around the corner. I am fair-skinned but I love the being outdoors, so I slather on SPF 50 and go out and enjoy myself. Although I’d love to be able to encase my husband in bubble wrap when he goes on one of his routine 50-mile bike rides, I know I can’t. We both try our best to avoid unhealthy food but, sometimes, something bad is just the thing that makes us feel so good.

So, we do our best. We try to get as much out of this life that we can, love the people who we hold close as hard as we can, take as good care as we can of our frustratingly aging bodies and minds, and always strive to treat others with patience, kindness, and respect.

We remain cautiously optimistic about the future.

14 thoughts on “Is this when the wheels start to come off?”

  1. Wow…. that is quite intense….when it’s all around you, it’s only natural to start wonder. I hope everyone comes through okay. I agree with you that our best weapons are things in our control. Quality food, exercise, good sleep, sun protection, and a healthy dose of watch where you are
    going-driving-walking.

    1. I think having the bad news come one after another really hit me hard. I feel so helpless, other than to provide words of comfort and, when possible, more concrete support. We are fortunate to live where we have access to quality food and a fair amount of regulations to help keep us safe.

  2. I can imagine that you’d be feeling the accumulative effect of so many bad news stories. I can’t think of anything to add to your last two paragraphs. Continue to hold out for positive outcomes for your friends, family, and yourself.

  3. I can relate to this. I am a breast cancer survivor but the fear never goes away. Every ache or pain makes me wonder. Is it back? Did it move? In our circle we have had some unusual diagnoses in the past few years. The kind that I had to google and write down because I couldn’t remember them. Things I never heard of when I was a kid and it happens to people too who are not overweight, don’t smoke or have any risky behavior. One of my retirement fears is that a major illness will strike and wipe out our savings. Medical insurance is very choosy and doesn’t pay for all new drugs many of which are outrageously priced. We have had one minor miracle in the past year. The spouse of one of my good friends was diagnosed with some unknown type of dementia. He was wheelchair bound and often out of it. Then he had a heart attack. The drugs they gave him for the heart attack stopped whatever else was going on. Today he can walk on his own and although he has had some brain damage, it’s minor and you can talk to him about anything and he makes sense. No one (including doctors) know what happened to cause or reverse the illness. I liked it better when I just worried about the silly things in life. Very thought provoking post.

    1. What an amazing story about your friend’s spouse! There is so much that is unknown in medicine and about the human body.

      I understand about the fear staying with you – I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma in my late 20s and then melanoma in my 40s. Although I consider myself “cured” of both, the worry is still there.

      It is hardly imaginable that, in a country as wealthy as ours, our citizens have to worry about being bankrupted due to healthcare costs. I hope that for everyone’s sake, this is fixed soon. I think your retirement fear is shared by many.

  4. Hi Janis! Sorry to hear you’ve had such a recent string of friends dealing with this. Illness, especially these that sound so scary and have so much negative energy attached to them make it even more difficult. I agree with your conclusion that we do what we can to stay healthy, love those that are close to us, live as fully as we can and still know that at some point in our future our time will come. As my husband has been known to say, “none of us will get out alive.” So we might as well make the most of it while we can. And yes to optimism–because what is the alternative! ~Kathy

    1. I know that you share my sense of optimism and belief in positive thinking (although my post might have been a bit of a downer, I really do try to look on the bright side…) and it has served us well throughout life. As your husband says, “none of us will get out alive” so live well, love hard, and laugh often. I know that even those friends that I wrote about aren’t wasting a minute feeling sorry for themselves.

  5. You are right on about the fact that as we age and others around us age, we “see” more illnesses. My neighbor suddenly passed away from complications of pneumonia (I think you saw that post). In my mid-50s I hear of more classmates passing away. A former employee, who is 32 years old, was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer last summer. I also think that social media puts these stories up front and center at a staggering rate whereas we may not have heard of a friend’s illness so soon. Now we literally take the journey with them which is therapeutic, but keeps us closer than we realize. I do know that God know the number of our days and when it’s our turn to go home, we just do. And that is part of the passage of life, one wheel at a time. I hope your friends can experience healing and peace, and to you as well, Janis!

    1. I was thinking too about social media and how it broadcasts the ups and downs in our friends lives much more quickly than we experienced pre-Facebook. I guess there is a good and bad side to this (like with most things), but I like how social media can encourage communication and prompt action.

      Thank you for your kind thoughts for my friends.

  6. I am so sorry that you are experiencing feeling surrounded by the serious illnesses of friends and acquaintances. As another commenter said, it does focus the mind on what’s important. And it is tough to feel helpless in the wake of all the new diagnoses. So many of us try to eat right, exercise, get our vaccinations, drive safely, get preventive medical care, etc., and yet any of the serious illnesses can get us without warning. So much of it is genetic, which we can do almost nothing about. I think the answer is to live one day at a time, as though each day might be the last one. My best wishes for your friends as they deal with mortality.

    1. You are so right about the genetic element. The good news is that everything we can do that is in our power to prevent disease will actually make us feel so much better in our day-to-day lives. The more we eat right and exercise our bodies, the more we are empowered to live each day to the fullest. Thank you for your kind words for my friends.

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