When someone is diagnosed with cancer, first comes fear. Then that someone steps up to the plate, ready for battle with The Big “C.”
My friend Cathy first heard the C word back in 1988. Ovarian cancer drew her into battle. Over the past 27 years, Cathy has been to war three times. She has beaten back her enemy each time. It wasn’t easy. The woman truly is a warrior.
Shortly after 9/11, I realized that Cathy’s war was similar to the one America found itself enmeshed in. The analogy of fighting cancer with waging a war became clear to me. I wrote the following essay to honor my friend for her bravery – and to honor all those who fight the valiant fight.
(This story appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2001)
A most personal war When a friend battles cancer, terror comes home.
By Judy Harch
As with most Americans these days, my mind never strays far from the war we are waging against terrorism. Recently, I had an epiphany about wars and heroes.
Terrorism exists in many forms. Heroes and heroines are often disguised as everyday folks. Brave souls who keep marching forward into the face of certain pain and possible death. One lives right in my midst. I see her often. I know the toll the wages of war bring to her body and her spirit.
She is my dear friend of 37 years. She is in a battle to restore her way of life. The terrorist in her war is the Big C – cancer.
Don’t doubt for a moment that cancer is anything less than a terrorist. The analogy fits perfectly. My friend must rid herself of terrorist cells hidden deep within her body. And that’s just what she’s doing. The arsenal of weapons used in her war can be just as lethal as scud missiles.
In every war, we hear that awful term “collateral damage,” which is a euphemism for the deaths of innocent victims. My friend’s body is taking a scheduled major hit every three weeks. Yes, those terrorist cells are suffering destruction, but there’s also the inevitable collateral damage to healthy tissue.
Chemotherapy is chemical warfare. In its wake, she lies weak and weary, barely able to get out of bed for two weeks. Just as she gains some semblance of normalcy, a fresh attack arrives when another salvo is fired into her body on week three.
Her weapons? Steroids, injections of white blood cells to boost her depleted immunity, and red blood cells to fight overwhelming fatigue.
This soldier has to regularly check into sick bay, then march back to the front during an 18-week (this time) tour of duty.
She is no neophyte to this war. Eleven years ago, she was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer, a “very low malignancy” but malignancy, nonetheless.
She gets leave time from this war, but she is tethered to it by the regularly scheduled maddening wait for the results of blood testing. Waiting for the numbers from her blood work is very much like when young men waited in apprehension for their draft numbers to come up.
When the terrorist cells spring back to life in sufficient numbers, she ships out again to the battlefront.
The bad news is that my friend will wage this battle for the remainder of her life. The good news is that, as long as she remains vigilant, she can win this war. But it will take grit, hardship and determination. She will have to forgo certain liberties that she took for granted during her pre-war years.
But my friend is the embodiment of the American spirit. She simply does what must be done. She knows the cause is just. Each time she is called to battle, she picks up her weapons of war and keeps marching. She will not allow terrorists to change her nature any more than our country will allow them to change ours.
One of the positive results of having your mettle tested is that you learn – whether as an individual or as a nation – that the human spirit burns bright. It is not easily extinguished.
We discover within ourselves what Albert Camus wrote: “In the depths of winter, I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.”
(Illustration courtesy of firstname.lastname@example.org)
UPDATE: Cathy continues her battle. She is now 73 years old and refuses to let the Big C win. Two years ago, she had a recurrence – bigger this time. She required surgery first, then chemotherapy. Our warrior is still in command!