My birthday just passed on July 5th. I am now a double nickel, 55 and counting! Truth be told, I love getting older and telling younger friends that each decade of my life has been better than the previous one. Who knows why, but I bet it has something to do with the wisdom one acquires with age, and with wisdom comes perspective and appreciation which leads to patience (on the good days), which I think is ultimately translated as grace. At least I translate it that way.
Of course, stage 4 leukemia has impacted my perspective as well. It was a Wednesday, July 17, 2013, when I received a phone call from Duke University Medical Center on the seldom-used landline house phone. I knew who it was before I answered thanks to our caller ID showing up on the TV screen as the 3-year-old kiddos watched a show at 10:33 that morning. I knew from past experience when our twinlets, Leo and Ella, spent 126 days in the Duke NICU that this number never called just to let us know that everything was OK. This phone call was no different.
That July 17th began a journey for my family and me that is all too common: the challenge of facing a cancer diagnosis. My personal diagnosis is a rare form of leukemia for which there is no cure yet. But I have never felt alone on this path; my wife, adult kids, brother and sisters, mom and close friends have been in touch throughout each new chemo and each new development in our treatment plan. Unfortunately, another reason that I have never felt alone is due to the sense that every month someone else in my circle of life is diagnosed with cancer. Last week it was a business colleague, in June it was the wife of a friend, in the news it was Senator John McCain, on social media it’s a 13-year-old boy from Raleigh with leukemia, fighting for his life in hospitals spanning from New York to Seattle, and at my daughters school it’s a classmate’s mother with brain cancer.
Cancer will affect everyone if you live long enough; either in your own body or the body of someone you know and love. And yet no one really knows how to act when they hear my diagnosis. I joke that I am going to write another book titled I Have Cancer, Let Me Help You With That. Every cancer patient that I share this title with laughs out loud and says, “no kidding.” It is amazing the insensitive and bizarre responses people will say when they find out you have cancer because no one is prepared for what to say or how to act. Maybe we should make a mandatory class in high school to teach teenagers about cancer, what it is, how it affects not only our body but our family and social dynamics.
As for me, I get asked about this blog a lot, and why I write less frequently than when our journey began, and the answer is lack of energy. That is what leukemia has done to me; it has zapped my ability to move about the day freely and apply normal amounts of energy and focus as I choose. More specifically, the 4th chemo regimen I am on is equally to blame, as I take 400 milligrams of a very strong targeted biological agent, which is actually winning against the leukemia cells but beats me up pretty good on a weekly basis. I see a palliative care doctor at Duke and he works magic for me through tweaks to my diet, medications, sleep routine and daily activity, all to try and accomplish normalcy as much as possible.
Please do not read this update as a form of complaint, quite the contrary. The reality is that since that fateful phone call four years ago and coming to grips with the initial prognosis of a 2-3 year mortality rate, I am grateful to remind myself that I have experienced 4 football seasons including my son Shawn’s record setting senior year of high school, two daughters getting married, trips with my wife to Italy, Lake Tahoe and NYC to see the play Hamilton on Broadway, and getting the chance to go to the Super Bowl with Shawn. Even as I type, I am humbled to list so many blessings, and that is without even mentioning that I became a grandfather 8 weeks ago.
I heard a story once of a man who visited with his pastor at his home in the mountains. The two stood outside and the man said, “Look straight ahead. I own everything as far as you can see.” He turned the pastor in each direction and said the same thing proudly. The pastor then looked at him, pointed to the sky and asked, “What do you own up there?”
If leukemia has done anything for me (and it has), it has clearly defined on a daily basis what is most important, where I want my life to count, and how much I want to own “up there.” Faith and family remain the priority as I try to direct whatever energy I have each day toward making a memory or an impression on those I love that will last forever.
July 17 reminds me of my priorities, and to count my blessings, both temporal and eternal, every day.
Amen and amen.