Cancer: put your money where your heart is

T.A. Barnhart

Relentless for a cure & LivestrongI wear a red message band on my left wrist, one of the many followers of Lance Armstrong's "livestrong" yellow. My band says "RELENTLESS" which is the motto for the Leukemia-Lymphoma Socieyt: Relentless for a cure. I wear this band because my dad and brother have both been afflicted with leukemia, and LLS has helped bring the treatments that have saved their lives.

But I wear the band knowing that sometime in the next few years, their cancer is probably going to recur. My dad, who will be 73 in May, might not survive this time; my brother Aaron, 40, has a much better chance — maybe. That's the thing about cancer: you never really know. You take care of yourself — my dad quit smoking in his early 20s, and Aaron has never smoked although like me he sucked down nearly 18 years of my mom's second-hand smoke — but the cancer does its own thing. We hope the researchers and doctors can do enough, but sometimes this kind of hope is unfulfilled.

Yesterday's announcement that Elizabeth Edwards' cancer has recurred brought back to me the realization that cancer never goes away. My sister-in-law, Aaron's wife Diane, is technically cancer-free. We hope she'll remain that way the rest of her life; but all we have is hope. We won't know until she dies of natural causes at the age of 102, I guess. Cancer is cruel in that way: keeps you guessing, looking over your shoulder, counting the cancer-free days off the calendar.

Except people like Elizabeth and Diane know better than that. They don't live in fear of their cancers; they live in peace despite the threat. That's the only real way to survive cancer: to refuse the fear. That's the point of "livestrong" and "relentless": the cancer can hurt and kill, but it's up to us to decide if we will let it destroy.

My friend Jen, in Kentucky, has an 8-year-old son who, not surprisingly, is the greatest joy of her life. He's currently undergoing treatment for a nasty form of cancer, and poor Jen has no choice but to continue with most of her daily life. She goes to work because she can't afford not to. She goes to work and her number one hope is that no one says a word to her about William, no kind words and especially no questions; just leave me alone so I can get through the day and get back to my kid. Her child may die, so she clings to whatever can pull her through: her family, friends, looking ahead to the final Harry Potter book (she's sure Dumbledore will return and Snape will be vindicated).

Those of us on the outside, watching what the person with cancer is going through, whether it's a friend or family member or someone as public as John Edwards' wife, cannot really know. I send my words to Jen, and she knows I'm thinking about her and William; but I am so far removed from what she's living through. If my brother's leukemia recurs, I'll do what I can, but it's probably not going to be much more than "Hang in there" and possibly a visit to them in Kansas City — if he has the energy for that.

Cancer's cruelty is well-documented, and I've seen probably the average amount amount around me (I joke that if two out of three American men will get cancer, my dad and brother have put me in the clear). Cancer was killing my mom before her heart gave up; cancer is after my dad and brother; and cancer is trying to take my friend's child. Yet my mom died doing something special for the man she loved; my dad lives a quiet, fulfilling life, skiing and sailing and reading. My brother is one of the top tv columnists in the country, with a growing career. Diane's an editor, author and historical performer (oh, and she's almost blind). And Jen has yet to lose her sense of humor, or the lovely nastiness she can bring out when blogging on LJ.

And Elizabeth Edwards believes in John. How easy — how expected — to set aside the campaign and concentrate on her recovery. I'm sure that was all John Edwards wanted: to leave behind his own ambitions so he could help take care of the woman he loves. But she refused to let him. Ending the campaign lets the cancer win, whatever happens to her body. Anyone who has been through difficulty knows that giving in to the circumstances — illness, the lack of money, the loss of a marriage, unemployment — is the real defeat (not to downplay how awful the illness or other tragedy is, of course). This is why Lance Armstrong is one of the most admired people in the country: he turned his illness into something special, and then he used the resulting fame to help others. Persevering is, as the cliche goes, easier said than done — but doing is absolutely necessary.

For those of us on the outside, we can't tell the ones with the cancer they must persevere, however; that's their decision. What we can do is be their friend, give them the support they need, and not view them as their cancer. They are still a child, a parent, a friend. Cancer is a cruel bitch, but so's a hand getting crushed in industrial equipment (that sucked, let me tell you) or getting downsized. Our friends and family need our love, not our pity; they need us to treat them normally.

And they need us to give money. To the Leukemia-Lymphoma Society. The Susan G Komen Society. A local kid's family struggling to pay the huge bills treatment brings. (Feel free to list groups, families, etc, that might need help in the comments.) They also need us to ride Congress' ass and have them fund cancer research properly, which is not being done (ask Lance about this, or read his own words). It's one thing to love and admire those with cancer; it's quite another to do something useful. If you can't cure it, give a bunch of money to someone who can.

And if you want a "Relentless" wristband, I have a bunch.

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    TA - I tear up at every news report of Elizabeth Edwards; my aunt recently found out she has cancer and it's incurable. To make matters worse, they found osteoporosis at the same time. The cancer controlled now, but I spent most of my winter campaign break between her hospital bed and her home. I got her hooked on General Hospital - after many, many years - talked about organic foods, watched her try hummus and various fruits and veggies, and generally tried to be sunny in an otherwise cloudy situation. She's been cleared to go back to work a few hours a day starting next month and I'm relieved. She needs more outside stimulation after been home for five months.

    I feel blessed that her insurance is strong, her family leave is valid, and that my mom, her sister, can find ways to visit, her daughter can take time off work, or in the case of her son, pick up and move here to Portland. It rips my soul that there are families in the same situation, but don't have the same luxuries. This could be a plea for many, many things: universal health care, more funding for overall cancer research, fully paid sick leave, preventative care and education (my aunt has always hated fruits, veggies and milk and refused to eat them...until now) or support for your fellow human. I try to support all and encourage thoughtful discourse on working toward saving our families - whatever that family dynamic looks like.

    Thanks TA for this and blessings to your family as well.

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    Karol, you make a great point in that our family and friends who go thru hard times, especially a terrible illness, need a lot more than money. when we had our first son, we were given a month of diaper service; that was so perfect! the smallest things can be huge blessings; cleaning the house (Anne Lamott tells the story of being visited by a churchmember who asked what she really really needed as a single mom of an infant -- and he then spent several hours cleaning her bathroom).

    i'm glad your aunt is better; get her going on the OGs and she'll do even better! she's lucky she's got you for a niece.

  • Doug F. Franko (unverified)

    Thank you for such a well written article. I too have worn a LiveStrong band and plan on getting a Relentless band. I also have an AIDS awareness pin I like to wear along with my "Death with Dignity" and "Viva La Castro" buttons. On cold days, I wear a "Peace" scarf along with an "Impeach Bush" patch hand sewn on my jacket. I do have a pair of shorts from a BREAST CANCER awareness fundraiser I occasionaly wear. Thank you.

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)

    I've lost a wonderful sister-in-law to the same progression Elizabeth Edwards has. Karla did well, she used her time to its best benefits, and our's. I guess that's all any of us can do, finaly. It is different to know what is going to get you and how it's going to go.

    Whatever else may be said about John Edwards, he's one hell of a judge of character.

    re: tin cup, this hurts, that's why nothing previously.

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    I would really like one of those red relentless bracelets please!

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