The Vivid Images Of Cancer

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

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 often more complex. Two Ithaca residents recently shared vivid images with me.

Howard Kendall compared cancer to an intruder who quietly entered his car during a trip. Howard didn’t know this intruder and at first felt terror, then denial. When it became clear that the intruder couldn’t be ignored, Howard pulled off to the side of the road and angrily ordered him to leave. When the intruder refused, Howard cranked up the heat and tried to make the ride as unpleasant as possible for the intruder. The intruder stayed put, and whatever Howard did to make the intruder suffer made Howard suffer as well.

Howard then tried to flee the car himself, but the doors were locked and he felt hopeless, believing that the intruder was in complete control.

But Howard felt a ray of hope because he had some control as long as he was at the wheel. He decided he had to make peace with the intruder. They didn’t have to be friends, but they had to co-exist with respect. This provided a sense of peace, making it seem more like an adventure. Like any adventure, there were opportunities for learning and for growth.

Carrie puts it this way:

“I am sitting around minding my own business. Someone walks up to me and hands me a baby animal that’s on the critically endangered list. ‘No take-backs!’ he proclaims and then takes off. I know nothing about caring for it. It’s this noisy, difficult, scary little thing that is suddenly all mine.”

“Over the years I learn to deal with it and care for it. It’s not easy. It’s highly unpredictable. I have to learn its schedule. I have to be there at all times, defending myself from its claws or teeth, feeding it, nurturing and protecting it, giving it all it needs to thrive. As it gets older, its needs and personality changes.”

“It’s a burden and yet it’s a source of information and an opportunity to see the world through a different set of eyes. I’m never comfortable with it, but I don’t hate it. In fact I have come to respect it, accept it and see all that its presence in my life has given me. I never planned on having one but now we are so close we are inextricably linked.”

Both Howard and Carrie paint such powerful pictures of living with cancer as a chronic disease. While the pictures are different, they both involve surprise, uncertainty and eventual adaptation.

They also illustrate courage, resilience and humanity.

Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.

Click here to see all of Bob’s columns


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