- Cullman, Alabama

October 6, 2013

SOUTHERN STYLE: The cancer monster

By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times

— As children we are sometimes afraid of scary monsters in the darkest corner of the closet or under our beds, stirring up the dust bunnies and just waiting for the lights to go out so they can reach up and grab a foot or a hand and pull us into some cavern that opens up between the cracks in the boards.

As we get older, we are frightened of monsters in the movies, like Stephen King’s creepy clown or Freddy Kruger, or Chucky, that unpleasant little plastic playmate with the evil grin.

In our 20s, we might be scared of the future, going away to college, relationships, or public speaking — a real trauma for most of us.

As we get older and have children, we have a whole new set of fears. Fear of a phone call in the middle of the night, fear of the temptations that befall even the best kids these days, fear of letting them fly on their own or not letting them fly on their own.

But there’s another monster lurking, waiting in the wings for one in every four people who will wake up one morning to find a lump, or a mole, or a multitude of symptoms, some barely noticeable.

Most people fear hearing that word each time they make that trip to the doctor’s office. Others never think it will happen to them, or never think of it at all, until it rears up its ugly head and shouts "boo!"

For too many, it is a reality that they live with daily, moment by moment.

I can remember the first time I ever heard the word. I was in the seventh grade and a classmate walked by. I heard someone whisper, “She has cancer.” I barely knew what it meant, but it didn’t take long for me to find out.  

My mother explained to me that she wasn’t expected to live, but I couldn’t accept that. We were only in the seventh grade, for goodness sake. Surely someone would give her some medicine that would make her better.

In the years after she died, I began to hear more and more about this dreaded disease that claims so many lives each year. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS) about 1,660,290 new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2013, and in 2013 about 580,350 Americans are projected to die of cancer, almost 1,600 people a day. Cancer remains the second most common cause of death in the US, accounting for nearly 1 out of every 4 deaths.

A friend’s husband was just diagnosed with a cancer called Classic Kaposi sarcoma (KS) — a cancer that develops from the cells that line lymph or blood vessels. It usually appears as tumors on the skin or on mucosal surfaces such as inside the mouth, in the lymph nodes or digestive tract. Classic KS occurs mainly in older people of Mediterranean, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern heritage, although he is unaware of any such ethnic heritage in his family tree.

My friend is understandably frightened.

I can rattle off a string of things that have been thought to cause cancer. Saccharine, smoking, red food coloring in things like hotdogs and other foods enhanced with that now-not-used-anymore red dye, the sun, applesauce (actually, it was supposedly something sprayed on the apples to make them crisp), fumes from just about everything from gasoline to household cleaners, charred meat, living close to those big electric grid pylons, Styrofoam, plastic, garden and farming chemicals, aliens from outer space, red lipstick, acid rain, DDT, Agent Orange and various genetically inherited characteristics.

Things that might cure cancer have been likewise touted, both homeopathic and traditional courses of treatment and alternative treatments, drinking asparagus juice and other natural remedies.

In recent years, because of research and development of new treatments, there are survivors, and this month celebrates those who have beaten the monster.

With early detection and treatment, cancer can be overcome. The monster is treated everyday with the help of researchers and doctors who are willing to devote their lives to finding a cure for a disease whose tempo chronicles the passage of minutes, days and months in which people have hope, face fear, and show remarkable courage.

October is National Breast Cancer month. If you know a family who is living with this unwelcome guest, make sure to offer your help.

How? Drive someone to an office visit, or for chemotherapy. Offer to babysit for people who have small children. Mow their lawn, make a trip to the grocery store, walk their dog, offer to run errands, bring them books and magazines. Do some laundry if needed, help with the housekeeping, offer to bring disposable dishes or bottled water, but most of all, just be there for them.

Cancer is a monster – but it can be beaten. Get involved. One in four people means that someone you know and love will have cancer in your lifetime. The Cullman County Relay For Life isn’t just for people who have cancer…its for all of us, because we all have loved ones who have, or will be, in some way touched by the cancer monster.