No right way through cancer

I often say that there’s no single right way through cancer. What do I mean by that? Some people aggressively treat their cancers with surgery and chemotherapy long past the time that others would have switched to comfort measures. Some people keep their cancer diagnosis a secret from nearly everyone while others make it a



Cancer on your own terms

I once wrote a column about people who go through cancer with exceptional grace. A few readers said that the column made them angry. The comments were along the lines of, “I’m dealing with a crappy disease and you want me to do that gracefully? Well, phooey on that and phooey on you.” I’m always



Connecting cancer scientists and cancer patients

Most cancer research begins in laboratories where scientists seek to understand why normal cells mutate into cancer cells and then travel, wreaking havoc, elsewhere in the body. These basic scientists are generally more familiar with test tubes than with cancer patients. Nationally, there’s growing interest in building partnerships between scientists and patients. For example, review



Why do engineers study cancer?

You probably know that cancer research is routinely done by biologists, but you might be surprised to learn that engineers increasingly contribute to our understanding and treatment of this disease. Here are some examples: Cancer cells migrate through the body to take root in distant organs. These cells have to survive the “flowing river” of



Nice people abound in the cancer world

One of the volunteers at the Cancer Resource Center recently said to me, “Every person I meet with cancer is nice.” It’s an interesting observation and one that other volunteers have made as well. I’ve been in the cancer world for more than 20 years and I think it’s generally true. Not because nice people



Parking lot moments after a cancer diagnosis

You’re initially stunned when you hear the words, “You have cancer.” Your brain freezes and things are a blur for at least a few minutes. A friend recently asked me what went through my mind once the initial numbness began to fade. For me, this was when I had checked out of the doctor’s office



Cancer and the holidays

The first few months of living with cancer are weird. What seems especially unsettling is that life goes on normally around you, but YOU HAVE CANCER. Your life is suddenly different but everyone else is carrying on like they always do. This sensation is even more intense during the holiday season. There are traditions and



Value your own story

I recently spoke with a group in Binghamton, NY about coping with and communicating about cancer. One attendee suggested that I add the importance of valuing our individual cancer stories. What a terrific idea. Each person who’s been through cancer (either as a patient or a caretaker) has a unique story. For many of us,



The Power of a Cancer Support Group

People with cancer share differently within a cancer support group as compared to how they share with their family and friends. One woman recently told me that when she shares her cancer diagnosis with friends, the friends often say something like, “You’re going to be ok, right?” She went on to say, “In my support



Waiting for the Oncologist’s Call

You know that you’re supposed to silence your cell phone when you’re in a meeting. Exceptions are permitted if it’s truly important, and few calls are more important than calls from your oncologist. During support groups at the Cancer Resource Center, it is not unusual for a person to jump up from the table to



Living with a Rare Cancer

The most common cancers in adults are prostate, breast, lung, and colorectal. Combined, these cancers account for nearly half of all cancer diagnoses. Other relatively common cancers include melanoma, kidney, leukemia and bladder. If you were diagnosed with breast cancer this past year, you might be comforted (and/or disturbed) to learn that some 235,000 other



Cancer and Hair Loss

Becoming temporarily bald is a common side effect of cancer treatment. For many, it is a difficult and all-too-visible symbol of illness and loss. Do you know why people often lose their hair while on chemotherapy? It is because chemo attacks rapidly dividing cells. Cancer cells rapidly divide – that’s the nature of cancer. But



New Year’s Wishes 2016

I like to give myself a magic wand at this time of the year to grant wishes to those affected by cancer. Here are my wishes for 2016: I wish that our friends and acquaintances would stop giving us advice. I wish that bake sales and chicken barbeques to raise money for people with cancer



Lessons Learned from Cancer

I’m always happy when readers tell me that the advice I provide in my columns about cancer is just as applicable for people with any type of serious illness. Increasingly, I think the lessons I’ve learned in the cancer world have applications to life even more broadly. Here are some examples: People should stop giving



Twenty Years in the Cancer World

It’s been nearly 20 years since I was diagnosed with cancer. When I step back from my day-to-day work, I realize how much has changed during those two decades: There’s considerably less stigma associated with cancer than there used to be. Twenty years ago, many people felt the need to keep their cancer diagnosis a



Cancer and Positive Thinking

Whenever someone is diagnosed with cancer, people feel compelled to say, “You gotta stay positive!” (This is usually said with an enthusiastic pump of the arm). I’m a pretty positive guy and I’m all in favor of positive thinking, but I cringe whenever I hear those words. First of all, telling someone to be positive



In Celebration Of Eric Ott

The Rongovian Embassy in Trumansburg, NY was filled last Sunday afternoon with people who love music. More importantly, the Rongo was filled with people who love Eric Ott. Eric is a well-known local musician who plays with the Yardvarks and the Lost Sailors. He’s also dealing with advanced esophageal cancer. On Sunday, it was clear



Don’t Assume You Understand

When Donna Berich tells people that she has skin cancer, they sometimes say, “Skin cancer? Oh, everyone gets that.” Well, not quite. Few people have skin cancer like Donna and others who have Basal Cell Carcinoma Nevus Syndrome (BCCNS). It’s common to think of skin cancers as falling into one of two categories: Melanomas which



Retired Nurses And Their Memories Of Cancer

I routinely speak with retired nurses and other health professionals who are concerned about a loved one with cancer. The word “cancer” often terrifies them because they went through training decades ago when cancer treatment was such a different experience. I’ve heard more than one nurse say, “Back then, cancer treatment was so awful that



Ringing The Bell

If you’re in Ithaca this weekend, you know that it’s graduation time at Cornell University. Graduations are filled with rituals that symbolize closing one chapter in life and moving on to the next. There’s celebration, change and uncertainty. Finishing cancer treatment is also a time of celebration, change and uncertainty. Here in Ithaca, there’s ritual



More Than One Cancer

Ithaca resident Skip Hewitt was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004, bladder cancer in 2009, and lymphoma in 2011. He told me, “When I was diagnosed with my first cancer, I cried. When I was diagnosed with my second cancer, I cried again. When I was diagnosed with my third cancer, I was just pissed off.”



A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Chemo

Visitors to the Cancer Resource Center are sometimes startled to hear uproarious laughter coming from behind doors. When the visitor raises a questioning eyebrow, we respond, “Oh, that’s one of our support groups. They laugh a lot.” People expect our groups to be somber. Cancer is difficult, and there are meetings filled with concern and



Cancer On Your Own Terms

I once wrote a column about people who go through cancer with exceptional grace. A few readers said that the column made them angry. The comments were along the lines of, “I’m dealing with a crappy disease and you want me to do that gracefully? Well, phooey on that and phooey on you.” I’m always



When The Boss Has Cancer

I recently received a phone call that went like this: “My boss is struggling with cancer, but he clearly doesn’t want to talk about it or even acknowledge how ill he is. I’m concerned about him, but I’m also concerned about everyone else who works here. We’re acting like everything will be fine, but no



Head And Neck Cancers Are Difficult

If I’m in a support group, I always shut down conversations that begins with, “My cancer is worse than your cancer.” Those conversations are always pointless because every cancer is life-altering and potentially life-threatening. But one type of cancer does present exceptional challenges during treatment and recovery. These cancers are head and neck cancers, and



Writing About Cancer

When I began writing this newspaper column about cancer, I wondered how long it could last. After all, how many story ideas about cancer could there be? Seven years later, the ideas keep coming and I’m still writing. I’ve decided that writing about cancer is writing about life. Cancer is a lens that makes life



Common Phrases

I’ve worked at the Cancer Resource Center for more than 14 years and have talked with thousands of people during that time who have been affected by cancer. Although every situation is unique, I often hear certain phrases repeated on a regular basis. Here are some of them: “I just got diagnosed with cancer and



A Cancer Pity Party

A woman with cancer recently told me that she was planning a pity party. She explained that, “Cancer just sucks and I want to get together with my friends to acknowledge that it sucks.” Sounds reasonable. Those of us with cancer tend to put on brave faces. But there are times that we grieve for



Boredom of Cancer

A young man with cancer recently told me that he felt bored. That’s not something I often hear from people who are dealing with cancer, but I know what he meant. Cancer treatment isn’t a smooth and level process. There are times that you want to bury your head under your pillow because you feel



Cancer And Community

I recently asked a group of cancer survivors if anything good emerged from their disease. One woman gestured at the people around the room and said simply, “This.” She went on, “Everyone here is a new friend.” I knew what she meant. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996 and found community. At first,



The Vivid Images Of Cancer

People with cancer often form mental images of the disease or its treatment. When I was first diagnosed, I heard people compare their cancers to a game of Pac-Man. They visualized killing off the cancer cells one-by-one until they were all gone. When people live with cancer as a chronic disease, their mental images are



Appreciating The Normal

A man with cancer just told me that he felt joyous when he was on chemo. That was a little startling because I’ve never heard the words joyous and chemo used in the same sentence before. He went on to say that the chemotherapy caused his tumors to shrink and, when they did, he suddenly



Cancer And Prayer

Every person affected by cancer faces challenges. There are the challenges of the initial diagnosis and coming to grips with the fact that life is suddenly different. There’s the challenge of getting through the often arduous treatment. And some are confronted with an even more difficult challenge – the realization that no treatment is likely



My Dog Who Loved Flannel

This column is about cancer, but this week, I’m writing about my dog who died a few days ago. She didn’t die from cancer, but she was my constant companion during my cancer experience. Ellie came to live with me thirteen years ago when she was already about three years old. Her previous owner had



Purple Ribbons At The Lincoln Street Diner

There’s a basket filled with purple ribbons next to the cash register at the Lincoln Street Diner. Purple is the color associated with pancreatic cancer, the disease that took the life of Bunny O’Brien/Schassburger. Her son, Christopher O’Brien, owns the diner and he and his family want to make more people aware of this devastating