Living Each Day Fully
The speech below was delivered by cancer survivor, Lynne Caplan,
on National Cancer Survivors Day on June 9, 2002.
It is an honor and a blessing to be here today – to share my
experience, strength and hope with you. It's
great to be alive! Besides, I love any gathering
where you get applause just for having a disease!
It seems so fitting to be celebrating life, celebrating cancer survival
today – the day of the First Union US Pro Cycling
Championship and the Ladies First Union Liberty
Classic, otherwise known as the “Tour
I am reminded, once again, to be inspired by Lance Armstrong. To
remember that I am not a statistic. That even if the odds of survival
to five years are low, there are people who comprise that small percentage.
When I was given such awful statistics, I immediately told the doctors
that it just wasn't acceptable. And I set out to prove their numbers
wrong. I calculated everything by how old my nephews were. And I knew
I had to stick around for all the milestones ahead in their lives.
On March 31, 2001, I registered for the Susan G. Komen Race for the
Cure. I had never participated in an event like that, and I thought
it would be fun as well as worthwhile. Three days later, on April
3, 2001, after nine months or so of complaints, I was sent for an
abdominal pelvic ultrasound. On April 6, I picked up a copy of those
test results. On April 10, 2001, I saw my internist. On April 11,
2001, I saw my gynecologist at 11:30. By 2:30 that afternoon, I was
sitting in a gynecologic oncologist's office learning about
the surgery I would need to treat my ovarian cancer.
I had heard that awful word; that word that every person dreads hearing
– Cancer – I
had Stage IV ovarian cancer. And the doctors
were all very grim. On the 12th of April, I had
a 2 1/2 hour MRI, on the 13th a 1 1/2 hour MRI
with contrast and two doctor's appointments.
On the 19th of April I went in for a pre-surgery colonoscopy. And
on April 24, 2001, I was admitted to the hospital for surgery.
I had turned 50 years old
on April 6, the day I picked up the original
ultrasound test results. That was a birthday present I'll never forget.
I spent the next twelve days in Graduate Hospital, pretty much not
knowing what was going on. My surgery had been far from successful.
The cancer was all over and only my ovaries had been removed. I was
discharged on May 5, 2001.
Then I came to Pennsylvania Hospital and met wonderful Dr.
Mason, my medical oncologist. Dr. Mason and I met on May 9th
and I began my chemotherapy on May 10, 2001.
As the Grateful Dead song states,” What a long strange trip
it's been.” I remember those first feelings of shock and
disbelief, of anger – not because I had cancer.
After all, the question, isn't “Why me” but “Why
not me” – But
anger because I felt that the doctors hadn't
been paying attention.
I had feelings of confusion, fear, panic, but I didn't really
have a lot of time to spend on all those feelings.
Once the cancer ball got rolling, it picked up
momentum and I was carried along. I realized, very early on, that
I had two choices, one was to sit in the corner and feel sorry for
myself – to
be a victim; the other was to fight for my life.
And I chose to fight.
About 19 years ago, under radically different circumstances, I almost
died. At that time, I had no real desire to go on; nor did I have
much courage or strength. But I have learned a lot in those intervening
years, much that has helped me to face and cope with the challenge
of living with cancer. This time, when my life was at stake, I wanted
to live. And I was willing to do whatever I had to do, to endure whatever
I had to, in order to stay alive. And as everyone with cancer knows,
sometimes you have to endure a lot.
The two most valuable tools I possessed were a sense of humor and
strong faith in God. I had been having frequent, overwhelming hot
flashes for a long time. But once my ovaries were removed, I became
a veritable firestorm. My most frequent utterance being, “Oh
my God, I'm so hot.” I could have turned fanning into
an Olympic Event. And with hot flashes like these, wearing a wig was
out of the question. Besides, my nephew, David, told me that if I
wore a wig, I wouldn't be his aunt anymore. And I certainly
couldn't let that happen.
Going bald and going wig-less had some unexpected positive benefits.
I met lots of wonderful people and had incredible
support from dozens of strangers. People who
took time to stop and say that they had battled cancer or that someone
they loved was battling. Some people stopped to say they would pray
for me – and I needed all
the prayers I could get. I began to ask people
to put me on the prayer lists at their churches or synagogues. A friend
even sent my name to some missionaries in Africa! I didn't care
where the prayers came from, as long as they kept coming.
And I tried to remember that God wouldn't give me any more
than I could handle on any day. I met with Dr.
Randall for the first time on September 11, 2001.
My mother called me in the morning to tell me
the country was being attacked. I turned on the
television to be sure she wasn't being
overly dramatic. And then, because I had to,
I went to my appointment to discuss my second
surgery. I had completed six rounds of chemo by this time. The country
was being attacked by terrorists and I was facing my own terror. As
I sat in Dr.
Randall's office – those awful images flashing across the
TV screen – I realized fully and completely that
having cancer was not the worst thing that could
Thousands of people died that day. Ordinary people who got up and
went to work and never had a chance. I was still alive. I still had
a chance. And my determination to fight became even stronger. I wondered,
in quiet moments, how many of the victims of the terrorist attacks
would have readily changed places with me?
It's not always easy and it's certainly not always fun
doing battle with cancer. The surgery, the tests,
the chemo, the shots, the appointments – it seems never ending.
But the people I met – my
doctors, the nurses, the entire staff at the
Joan Karnell Cancer Center became a family to
me. They always had a hug and candy.
And truthfully, some days I came not for the chemo, but for the candy.
I had a lot of support – family, friends, professionals
and fellow cancer survivors – who stood by me even when I
didn't know they were there. It's been a truly
amazing experience. Probably not one I'd have
chosen for myself, but one I have learned so
very much from – about
cancer, about myself and about the preciousness
I was so flattered to be asked to speak as a survivor today. After
all, my last of ten chemos was only in January. But once you enter
the world of cancer, survival takes on a new definition. Survival
is every day that you are alive once you've been diagnosed.