Cancer sunny-side up Survivors show perception is an important part of fighting disease By Joanne Turner I was not sitting in a greasy spoon diner filled with the aroma of bacon and stale coffee. I most certainly did not order it from a tired looking waitress wearing a pink dress and white stained apron named Flo. But before I knew it, a big plate full of unpleasant news was placed in front of me, looking like two big fried eggs staring me straight in the eye. The only problems was that unlike a serving of eggs, I could not quickly gobble it down, nor simply return it to the kitchen to make it all disappear. You see, in May of 1997, I did not order this healthy serving of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia that was placed before me. Yet, like an estimated 129,300 people served this dish each year in Canada, I was facing a diagnosis I did not want and one that would change my life forever. Cancer and eggs do not seem to have a whole lot in common, but as you read on, it will become more apparent that how you perceive cancer is all in the eyes of the beholder. Like eggs, cancer comes in many different forms. One person may see his or her cancer as scrambled or confused. Another might perceive it as hard-boiled or lifeless. But I joined the ranks of millions of cancer patients around the world who choose to see their cancer as sunny-side up. As a peer counselor to people experiencing cancer, I have had the privilege of speaking to hundreds of cancer survivors from all over the world, all walks of life and all stages of health or illness. In each case, there are always feelings of despair, fear, frustration, anger and indescribable sadness. There is no question that this one powerful word represents everything from diagnosis to death, and everything in between. I admire each individual’s approach to the cancer challenge. Every person has their own unique way of coping with the mountain of information that he or she is invariably inundated with. But more importantly, I appreciate the common link that holds us all together with such power and strength. It is certain that our cancer team shares many strategies and lessons. This combined wisdom is the common thread that links each cancer survivor. To me, this thread may as well be made of gold as it is priceless and reflects the glow in the hearts of all of those who have woven it. Take Tanya, a 34-year-old cervical cancer survivor who states, "I have learned to savour everyday occurrences. I have learned to counter the sacred within the ordinary." This quote perfectly sums up one of the greatest gifts cancer can ever bring, the ability to appreciate the joy in life’s most mundane things. This is a skill that hardly ever makes it onto one’s resume of life. A simple skill that appears so easy to attain, yet how often is it actually practised in most people’s daily routine? If nothing else, cancer presents the opportunity to open one’s eyes to the diamonds that already exist in our own backyards. Despite all the difficult conditions cancer brings — hospitals, chemotherapy, physical decline and sickness — one can always adhere to the above principle with enough determination and strength. There is always a simple moment to savour, a simple pleasure to enjoy, one friend to call and one person to love or one smile to offer. It is all in how one chooses to see the world and whether or not one allows his or her eyes to drink in the beauty that surrounds us. All of a sudden the sky can look bluer and the grass can be felt growing beneath one’s feet. Cancer survivors often have the unbelievable ability to smile at everyone they meet. They generally expect something good is bound to happen, no matter what happened yesterday. I am the first to admit that this is a massive task, but I am also the first to admit that it can make all the difference in the world to yourself and everyone you encounter. James, a 24-year-old survivor of Hodgkin’s disease remarked, "I never realized how happy I could be driving on the highway in my beat up old Toyota. Who would have thought cancer could bring me such ecstasy — and I don’t mean the chemical kind." Many people continue to strive for the bigger, faster and more expensive things in life. James ably illustrates that true value comes from a feeling deep inside and not from something that can be found in Bloomingdales or on the Internet. Daphne du Maurier underlines this so well in her quote, "Happiness is not a possession to be prized. It is a quality of thought, a state of mind." Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that it takes a cancer diagnosis to join this club of simple joy. Membership after all is available to anyone who seeks it out. "Cancer forced me to take a leap of faith and start believing in myself. I was just waiting to be asked to make my dreams come true," says Cathy a 56-year-old breast cancer survivor. The body is an amazing thing that has an incredible ability to heal itself if it is asked. This does not mean that every body recovers from the huge impact that cancer brings, sadly this is not the case. However, unbelievable things can happen to bodies that appear to be incapable of accomplishing such enormous tasks. Take Lance Armstrong as an example, the American cyclist who recently won the Tour de France for the second year in a row. Yet in 1996, Lance was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. Few people had the confidence that Lance would survive his cancer, let alone be able to continue with his professional cycling career. After much surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, Lance decided to push the limit and defy all logical thinking. He decided to train for the Tour. In July of 1999 and 2000, Lance brought tears to the eyes of cancer survivors around the world as he leaped up on to the winner’s podium on the Champs d’Elysée in Paris. There is only one thing that made this remarkable feat possible. It is called faith. Lance had the faith in himself, in his doctors, in his body and most importantly in his spirit. He believed from the deepest part of his soul that his wildest dreams could come true. It just required the confidence to try. I believe that Lance represents the true essence of faith to cancer survivors and anyone else who chooses to take note. I have yet to meet a cancer survivor who dreams of winning the Tour de France but I have met hundreds who dream of having a baby, going to Hawaii, seeing their grandchildren or planting tulips in their garden. The dream is not what is important. What is important is that they believe so strongly in themselves and have the faith to leap off of their comfortable little rocks into the pond of life. Many cancer survivors believe cancer has given them the confidence to do this, to have the courage and to trust the loving wisdom of their hearts. A very wise woman, Helen Keller, once said, "No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars or sailed to an uncharted land or opened a new heaven to the human spirit." I am sure her words rang true so many years ago, but perhaps today her message is even more important as cancer and non-cancer patients alike are constantly bombarded with forces that destroy our confidence and faith in our minds, bodies and spirits. In many of my conversations with cancer survivors, it is clear that faith in a larger being, whether it is God or another spiritual being, is also often of paramount importance. Paul, a 52-year-old survivor of Acute Myeloid Leukemia, illustrates this by stating, "My best achievement is my belief and trust in The Lord Jesus Christ. He is the inspiration and the source of my inner strength along with my family and friends." "My strength comes from God. Although I m not a regular churchgoer, my faith has given me so much strength. One of my favorite sayings is that courage is fear that has said its prayers," says Phyllis a 70-years-young breast cancer survivor. Although I would not consider my own spirituality to be religious, I most certainly believe it signifies that things happen for a reason and in the end, there is always good. Like my cancer teammates, I find this to be an amazing way to train my mind to accept and cope with any of life’s tragedies. When one can replace fear with peace, I believe he or she has accomplished more in life than we could ever hope for. It is unfortunate that it took cancer to show me this lesson, but I, like many others, am eternally grateful for this ability to calm the stormy seas in my mind. The appreciation of one’s family is a universal benefit that cancer brings to so many people. Anne, a 61-year-old breast cancer survivor, states: "My family has always been important to me but now I think of the joy they give me constantly. Most of all I know that they love me." This quote has particular significance to me because Anne happens to be my mother. One could choose to look at this situation as unfair and disheartening. In an ideal world, I would not choose for anyone to endure cancer, let alone both my mother and I. However, our cancers have awoken our senses. They have allowed us to cherish our relationship like no other and they have created a bond between us that nothing could chisel its way through. My respect for my mom is unsurpassed and my gratitude to her for providing me with the tools to cope with my own disease is unequaled. I can honestly say, that no one reflects this article’s words of wisdom better than my own, very dear mother. I have recognized the universal bonds that link cancer patients together, as I was diagnosed and treated in Sydney, Australia. Thus, a good portion of my cancer teammates are true-blue Aussies who without a doubt share the same issues and attitudes as those in Canada. I am very proud to have been a cancer patient and a Canadian in a foreign place. I love Canada’s land, its people and its maple leaf but there is one thing that makes me want to wave my Canadian flag more than anything else. It is Terry Fox. Terry was a young man, who unlike me, lost his body to cancer — but he never allowed it to take away his soul. He had a dream called The Marathon of Hope and with the dip of his artificial toe into the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean, he embarked on one of the most incredible journeys of all time. "I’m not a dreamer, and I’m not saying this will initiate any kind of definitive answer or cure to cancer, but I believe in miracles. I have to," said Terry on Oct. 15, 1979. His miracle has come true. In 1996, over 1 million people participated in the Terry Fox Run in Canada and around the world. In 1997, total monies raised in Terry’s name for cancer research reached $200 million. The year 2000 marks the 20th anniversary of the Marathon of Hope. It marks 20 years of running for cancer research and 20 years of hope for cancer patients around the globe. It is a chance to reflect on one very remarkable individual who left the comfort and safety of his living room to venture out on a safari of his spirit. He taught us what it means to be a cancer patient and more importantly, he has taught us what it means to be Canadian. Sunday, Sept. 17, 2000 is your opportunity to contribute to the lives of all cancer patients by taking part in the Terry Fox Run. Choose to honour this day and the life of Terry Fox. Choose to participate, live and dream. Choose to see cancer sunny-side up. Joanne Turner lives in Whistler and volunteers for the Canadian Cancer Society. With her cancer in remission, she spends a maximum amount of her time skiing, hiking or biking and a minimum amount of her time on her couch. If you or someone you love is experiencing cancer and would like to speak with Joanne, please e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. BOX AT BOTTOM Registration for the Terry Fox Run will start at Nesters Square at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2000. The run will begin at 10 a.m. Please call Martha Heintzman at 905-9715 for more information or to volunteer.