Kirklin Clinic Head & Neck Cancer Support Group, Birmingham, AL
distributed by American Cancer Society
Pat Sanders, Editor
Still Dreaming and Wishing After All These Years …
By Diane Davis
Born in 1950 in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, I was happy to be a baby boomer but unhappy to live the poor life being a farm slave for anyone in my family who needed work done. It was an abusive family and my escape was reading and school. My teachers supported me and helped in more ways than I can describe … helping me keep my focus and sanity and to stay at the top in my class. Teachers are so incredibly underrated and under appreciated.
In hindsight, I’m glad to have experienced the farms … only imagining now how many millions of kids today have not ever had the awe of seeing or being a midwife to a calf, ewe or foul birthing. They cannot imagine what it’s like to be self sufficient within acres of beautifully fertile land, growing and harvesting fruits and vegetables, raising chickens, pigs, geese, and ducks, and milking cows, along with being skunk sprayed while picking wild berries in the woods or being charged head on by goats. Or being punctured and scarred by a picket fence. Or walking behind a cow at the wrong time and being showered with its waste. On the other hand … maybe the farm has moved to the city … or should I say morphed!
But farm life was not for me. I dreamed of traveling the world and learning Spanish, becoming an interpreter or perhaps an interior or fashion designer. As was the case with many others, I couldn’t afford to go to college so I joined the Army. Not too smart in ’68 during Vietnam but it was an experience I will never forget or regret. Spanish language school was not available so I chose to be a communications specialist and an expert flame thrower (part of chemical, biological and radiological warfare training). I parted with a good conduct medal as a Sergeant. I would have stayed but the military was far too sexist then and I wasn’t fulfilling my dream of traveling. I didn’t realize what a fighter I really was until later in life. I joined the reserves in hopes things would change but to no avail so I said “Hasta lavista.” and I really meant it!
While stationed in Ft. Sam Houston, TX (no longer an Army post), I met my first husband and it should have dawned on me that our marriage was not to last when I spent my honeymoon with mother-in-law & father-in-law, aunt in-law and two sisters in-law. That maybe could have been forgivable eventually if it weren’t for having to share the second double bed in our room with the sisters-in law!! Oh yes, I swear it’s true. They are the ones who taught me how to smoke… Newports … on their double bed in our room. I wanted to show my husband how stupid it was to smoke but I didn’t know how addictive smoking was . Well, what do you expect at 18?
We ended up in Detroit and I landed a job in advertising and loved it…. advertising, not Detroit (too cold and mean). I was too young and green to understand that advertising was mean, too. Since my Army bennies paid for college, I went to Michigan (Go Blue) to study Spanish, finally, and Graphic Design. When my husband was transferred to California, I was ecstatic. I had never been there but always dreamed about it … “California Dream’n” maybe … part of the hippie culture that I missed, being out there in farm country. Hadn’t finished college so I still couldn’t speak Spanish much but I was good at design … so they said and so did my report card.
I loved California and my job at a new, very hot, creative advertising agency. Not only did I get a good marketing and media education, but learned how to swear, smoke and drink with the best of them … all before the ripe old age of 28. And, no surprise … I finally admitted that my husband was not my life partner, so we parted ways. Loved the in-laws, though, even though they were nuts … good, bad, cute and ugly!
I met Joel, my current husband of 20 years, while Media Director of the ad agency in L.A. He worked his way into my heart while under the ruse of teaching me how to play racquetball. He loved my moves, I loved the game, but found I liked his game(s) even better and we became great friends.
In the meantime, I became enamored with the technology revolution spending hours nightly devouring every publication I could find, learning about all things computer, eventually becoming a Mac evangelist, God help me. And I mean a true blue evangelist … and still am. As an expert on the Mac User Group help line and beta testing software, I won awards from Intuit until they found I wouldn’t do online banking so they never invited me back. Good thing too ‘cause I discovered design software and signed up for the UCLA Certification in Computer Graphic Design.
The agency was getting stale so I found myself Media Director of a fortune 500 fast food company and that’s where I really grew up in the world of marketing and advertising. You have to be young to survive the demanding hours, the corporate politics and the partying in between. With my passion for computer technology and knowledge of media, I developed a state-of-the-art media management system that rocked the company up to the highest corporate ranks. That rocked my boat, too, but after six years, I couldn’t stand the politics anymore. And, frankly, the sexual harassment was incredibly tense with nowhere to turn at that point. So I joined my husband as a partner in his media buying firm. His sexual harassment was much easier to handle ;-)
As partners, we grew the company and grew our lives together. Life was grand. With a certificate in computer graphic design from UCLA just one semester away, I felt I had finally reached a long-term goal. Remembering vividly a meeting with the head of the Graphic Design Department when she asked why I was working so hard for a degree at my age, I replied, “Well, I’ll turn 50 anyway; I may as well turn 50 with a degree.” She later plagiarized that statement but I just figured she was going through the change and forgot who said it. I always considered it a nice complement anyway.
But just before the final semester, and two years before my 50th birthday, I was diagnosed with throat cancer, and one week later with breast cancer. And I said to my husband “Better me than you”, because too many people don’t understand how devastating it is for the spouse to see what’s happening and be powerless to do anything about it. Still today, I don’t know which is worse for the long run. For a while there it was touch and go but the fight in me kicked in eventually. Or perhaps it’s just that, being a very stubborn, competitive person … I just had to play it out … give it my all.
From 1998 to 2001 I battled three wars with cancer and two with radiation therapy. Did I get a good conduct medal? No. That honor I give to my husband, without whom I would have been more miserable than words could ever describe. He was my sometime Cheerleader, sometime Drill Sergeant, in going for the long run. And we did. So I thought the battle is finally over. I really believed that in my heart and soul but it turned out to be wishful thinking.
In 2004, I started to have breathing problems and mucus blocks that stopped my breathing and sucked the energy out of my being. I would be awakened in the middle of a deep sleep, sitting up straight in my bed, gasping for air and realizing I had to get rid of the mucus block somehow. My husband would pound on my back … and so it went for months. I was in denial again. Mind you, all of this time I was, since 2001, having regular checkups with my ENT surgeon. One day, after my shower, I couldn’t catch my breath and stumbled into my husband’s bathroom in distress (how convenient it would have been if we were showering together that day;-). We went in to the doc who scoped and said there was no sign of cancer there but he wanted to trach me. I said no way and we went home. My husband didn’t interfere with my wish, bless his heart.
In hindsight I think I made the right decision because, while I would have been able to breathe, it could have delayed the discovery of the cancer that was growing within. Losing weight rapidly, I went from 135 to 92. In my heart and soul, I knew something was wrong, but was denying still.
A small time later Joel and I were returning from a business trip from Palm Springs and I had a major mucus block … could not get it up or down … couldn’t breathe….. motioned him to pull off the freeway. He panicked and forgot all the stuff we learned only the week before in the Red Cross CPR course. I was trying to do the Heimlich on myself when, for the grace of God, the blockage let loose.
The Fellow of my surgeon at UCLA was the one to find the cancer … again. It was so aggressive that we had to cancel our business and vacation plans to have “IT” done … the laryngectomy … and we were devastated. No time for a pity party though. Just wham, bam and forget the thank you for now.
The idea of not doing the surgery at all had pulled at my brain constantly. After all, it’s the quality, not the quantity of life, right? I really believe that but my husband said, “Stay with me baby … the best is yet to come”. He made me realize that I was not the only one in this equation of life, an important epiphany on my part. My life wasn’t just about me anymore. I had made commitments to others … big ones.
It was Joel with whom I had traveled to the South Pacific, Caribbean, Switzerland, Spain, Tuscany, Ireland, France, Japan, etc. One of my most passionate dreams really came true after all. And I even got to use a little Spanish from time to time. It was with Joel that I learned how to really enjoy life. And it was Joel who I could teach also … about nature and the art of appreciating the simple life. We learned together. We journeyed together. We grew together. It would have been a very selfish thing to give that up without a fight … and just leave him permanently … after all he’s put into us over the years.
But a fighter I am, without a doubt. So I fought … once again like most of us did and won the largest battle yet. There will be many more battles, I’m sure. Will I ever win the war? The question is how many battles can one fight and still win the enjoyment of life? I’ll just keep wishing, hoping, praying and fighting (good lyrics for a song ;-)
I’m so convinced there is a plethora of accomplishments in front of me before I take my last journey, that I’ll have to be around for awhile. I just have not done everything I was put here to do. So I’m getting a series of chances to do that … whatever “that” is. Gee, maybe if I just don’t get it all done, I could be around forever … still dreaming and wishing after all these years. … and learning too!
My good friend, Pat Sanders, asked me to put some words together on what it means to lead a support group. The best answer is, “I don’t know” because the support group I am a part of, the one that meets each month at Brookwood, is blessed with leaders, so I don’t have to serve in that capacity. All I really do is try to get a head count of how many are going to attend that particular month and pass this information on to those who prepare the luncheon we have together (which, by the way is always outstanding).
At our meeting place, these leaders I mentioned, including Pat, always arrive early enough to move the tables and chairs and anything else that needs doing to make sure the set up is complete. When I stumble in, everything is ready. Of course, I don’t always “stumble in”; sometimes I just “wander by”. As you can see, I can’t tell you what it means to “lead” a support group because we are all in this together. I can, however, tell you what it means to be a part of this particular support group. It is the one thing I look forward to each month, much as a small child looks forward to Christmas.
Trying to describe what takes place in our meetings is difficult; the fellowship, the inspiration, the wonder, is all beyond accurate description. I have often told my son about the experiences that occurred during the time I was aboard an aircraft carrier in the United States Navy but you had to be there in person to really understand.
I learned long ago in my ministry, that real needs and the need for communication should be combined with one-on-one contact. Every individual has needs. They are his or hers, and they are very real, and very personal. These are needs that cannot be addressed or handled from the pulpit. In all the years I have preached, I have never been involved with a tearful person, asked a question, or even been asked to clarify something while in the middle of delivering a sermon. If there were a question in someone’s mind about the message, chances are that person would forget it, or decide it wasn’t really important in days to come. They had rather not hang around because they had some place they needed to go. This is, of course, not to say, that there is no need for a combined, corporate service, because there certainly is.
Most people sitting in that service have not faced nor are presently facing, the fears of a dreaded diagnosis for either themselves or a loved one, called CANCER, the big “C”. When our support group meets each month, every person in that room has been through that valley, or they are presently cautiously groping their way through that valley with only one exception, and that is the facilitator - me.
The courage, the caring, the love these people have for each other is guaranteed to make your cup spill over the top, and I can promise you there is enough inspiration and material, in just one meeting, to supply a room full of preachers everything they need for any number of sermons.
One of the things that always strikes me, is the fact that not one person present is really concerned about themselves. Their only concern is for each other and how supportive they can be. Those who attend for the first time are usually newly diagnosed patients who sit there amazed. As we go around the room, each person speaks their name and gives a short personal history with cancer, such as when diagnosed, what kind, and how long it has been. Often a member of the group will have had more than one diagnosis, more than one type of cancer.....Some are in remission; many are not, many are in various stages of treatment.
At some point in each meeting, I find myself struggling with my own emotions, sometimes desperate to hide the tears. NOT because it is sad, but because it is beautiful. One of the statements that goes straight to my heart each time, is when someone says “Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me. It opened my eyes to so many things and I am a different person today because I had cancer.” That gets me every time I hear it, and it always will.
I will always be thankful to God, The Brookwood Cancer Institute, and the Alabama Foundation for Oncology for the opportunity that presented itself and enabled me to be a part of this support group. But the ones I am most thankful for are the members who attend because of what they have given me and taught me. God bless them.
Often people who learn for the first time that I am not “The Chaplain” but rather the “Oncology Chaplain”, ask the same question: “How do you do it”? I always give the same answer:” I hope I do it very well”. And if I do, it is because I have learned to take the plunge, get involved with them, hug them, laugh with them, and yes, cry with them.
One thing is for sure; to really be of service, first of all, you have to “Be There”.
So, what does it mean to lead a support group? I don’t know. But being there with them, just being a part of the group, means everything.
One of my favorite scriptural passages is from Proverbs 3:5-6 which reads:
“Trust in the Lord with all Thine Heart and Lean not into Thine own Understanding. In all Thy ways acknowledge Him and He Shall direct Thy Paths”.
He has - He will - and He does.
Duke Martin, Oncology Chaplain
Brookwood Medical Center, Birmingham, AL
(This cancer support group meets on the 3rd Tuesday each month for lunch in the Executive Board Room at Brookwood Medical Center. Gather at 11:30 a.m., Lunch at 11:45, Fun and Talk until 1:00 / 2:00.)
B’ham: Pat Sanders, 205-980-8416; firstname.lastname@example.org