I have never had abs of steel. If I had to liken my stomach muscles to something, it would have a consistency somewhere between firm Jell-O and fresh-from-the-can Play-Doh.
But I’m proud of my belly. It’s criss-crossed with scars from surviving Stage 4 colon cancer a dozen years ago. The biggest and baddest of them looks like a bite from a good sized shark in bad need of orthodontia.
Right now those scars have company. I’ve got stickers, tattoos, marks and perforations all carefully positioned by doctors and nurses at the Mayo Clinic to prepare me for three weeks of radiation therapy.
What started as a little fatigue and a lot of itching in August culminated in a diagnosis of cholangiocarcinoma -- or bile duct cancer -- a pretty rare form of cancer that develops in only 2,000 to 3,000 Americans annually. Statistics like 5-year survival rates tell a sobering story. But numbers -- without people -- always make for worse stories. The real stories that matter always involve real people.
Here at the Journal Star we’ve written about many amazing people who have struggled with cancer and other physical and mental health challenges. I have found inspiration -- and shed tears -- reading those stories. Sometimes they are about tenacious battles for life. Sometimes they are about making the most of every day, no matter how many are left. And sometimes they are about saying goodbye with humor, dignity and courage.
I don’t know what my story will be, but I’m 12 years older than the last time I had cancer and probably at least 4 to 6 years wiser. The last time I had cancer, my wife and I had a 6-year-old, a 3-year-old and newborn twins. The kids are older and, if not wiser, at least better equipped to help around the house. My wife Allison is as wise and wonderful as she’s always been, quick with support or, when needed, a little gallows humor.
My prognosis is uncertain, but I’m pretty sure about one thing.
Cancer and trials like it bring out the best in many people. Perhaps it’s a shame it takes a life-threatening illness to unite us, but my family and I have been lifted up by the prayers, warm wishes, strenuous hoping and sincere offers of help from family, friends and strangers as news of my illness has spread. We’ve found such joy in the memories shared and the connections and reconnections made. Meals, flowers, cards and emails remind us we’re not in this alone.
This isn’t news, but sometimes it’s easily forgotten amid today’s less-than-civil discourse, angry comments on news stories and angry arguments over politics: People are capable of great good. A smile, a kind word, a simple gesture can make a huge difference.
Outwardly, I look pretty healthy. I’m still jogging a few miles most days of the week. To look at me you’d never know what was going on just south of my liver and north of my stomach. And that’s an important point, too, that we never know -- and often can’t see -- the burdens that others carry. That’s why those smiles and kind words are so important. You never know when they’ll change a day or change a life.
Politics, race and economic issues will continue to divide this country. Religion will make some people better and some people worse. The world has always been captivated by the loudest voices, but it’s made better by the quiet ones helping others be their best.
The last three weeks at Mayo have been a string of scans, meetings and procedures, good news, bad news and no news. Next week I’ll start catching rays on my radiation vacation, strengthened by the goodness of so many who have reached out to me and my family.
There are a lot of things I’d rather be doing. But in a divisive and caustic political season, the goodness I’ve been exposed to might just be what the doctor ordered.