By Nancy Tangeman
The words you never want to hear, “you have cancer,” I’ve heard twice in my life and each time my heart sank. What I couldn’t see then was how it would end up making my heart flourish.
Cancer was not new to my family. We’ve seen loved ones survive the journey and searched for heartbreaking answers when others didn’t. I first heard those awful words, “you have breast cancer” nine years ago at the age of 49. I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was. My sister, mother, and grandmother all had it before me. My mother had not survived. The reality of those words was overwhelming, but I had decisions to make on my treatment options and more importantly, I had to understand the genetics of it all. I had two sons just beginning their families and a beautiful little granddaughter. They could all be at the mercy of my genes. Worse than having cancer was the knowledge that I may be the cause of passing the same fate to those I love the most. I learned that knowledge truly is power, but it often does not give you all the answers. Through genetic counseling and testing, we know we have a breast-cancer gene, but it is not one that science can currently identify. We know that 50% of my loved ones are high risk, but we don’t know which 50%. For my treatment I chose a double mastectomy, hoping it could save my life. It was heartbreaking to hear that for my family who carried the gene, they had over a 95% risk of someday hearing those terrible words. I was learning to hate statistics.
September of 2014 I was told I had lung cancer, likely from exposure to radon in my previous home. Science and research could not help me with this one. I immediately knew I would hate statistics even more. My grandfather died from lung cancer. Most people do. Only 44% survive one year; 17% survive five years. My initial thoughts were how I could protect my family from the bad news, the burden, and the grief. What would they tell my wonderfully close five-year old grandson? Would I have time to form that magical bond with my four-month old granddaughter?
My birthday had just been a month before my diagnosis. My family had gathered to celebrate and both my oldest granddaughter and daughter-in-law had a cold. Within a few days, I had bronchitis. This was the only reason I ended up in a doctor’s office with an X-ray machine looking into my lungs.
At first, I could only give small pieces of information to my loved ones because reality was too cruel for them and for me. I did what most would do, I got organized and prepared.
As I followed the motions and worked my way through the numbing path of the medical system with endless tests and methodical talks of the reality that lay ahead, I started noticing something new. Extraordinary people began to appear in my life. I met a lung-cancer survivor by coincidence. Friends I had not heard from in years, called me without knowing about my illness. Family and friends reached out and offered loving gifts of support. Each person brought something so precious into my life and I learned to accept their gifts with the love they were intended to be. I know I am writing my story today because of them.
In my first year I’ve beaten many odds that shouldn’t have been beaten. A long time ago I stopped asking why. That’s both the negative and positive why’s. The odds of finding anything less than late stage lung cancer are less than 15%. After going through lung surgery and chemo, my five-year survival rate has jump to over 55%. I am beginning to love statistics.
I learned that we are not meant to go through this type of journey alone. If we accept it, the energy and strength that is offered can heal both you and them. We aren’t supposed to shield each other from the reality of what lays ahead. We are all intertwined to help each other. I can see how Christ puts us together to do amazing things.
I told my oldest granddaughter and daughter-in-law that the cold they gave me for my birthday that day was the best gift I could have ever received. Their eyes shine and they smile wide whenever I say that.
Thanks to Nancy for sharing her courageous story. Through her journey she discovered that finding someone willing to talk was both helpful and hopeful. Nancy shared her story knowing that we can help each other with encouragement, useful information regarding treatment, and the comfort of knowing we are not alone. Unfortunately, one in three people are being diagnosed with cancer today. St. Boniface is beginning a ‘willing to talk’ network for cancer patients and survivors. If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with cancer and would like to talk with someone who shares a similar experience, either in a one-on-one or small group setting, or if you are a cancer survivor “willing to talk” please contact Sara Krohnke at 987-4597 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional support including resource links on our website, and a possible support group are being developed.