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.