Waiting and Watching

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.

Most cancer diagnoses lead to treatment within a few weeks. For some cancers, however, the recommended course of action is to delay treatment until if and when the cancer becomes worse.

Many of us have heard of “watching and waiting” being recommended for some men with prostate cancer, but it also happens with other cancers, including some forms of leukemia and lymphoma.

Danby resident Ben Hogben has a rare type of cancer known as Hairy cell leukemia. Many people with this condition don’t require treatment when first diagnosed and some never require treatment. It’s a matter of regular physical exams and closely monitoring lab results. Treatment is required only if blood counts fall below a certain level.

Most of us are conditioned to think that cancer needs to be attacked as aggressively and quickly as possible. Our whole vocabulary of cancer treatment is built on this approach – fighting cancer, battling cancer, defeating cancer. But, for Ben, the best treatment is no treatment – at least for now.

Can you imagine being told that you have cancer and that the recommended path is to keep a close eye on it? That has to be unsettling.

Ben’s situation isn’t unique and it’s made me realize that people with cancer who don’t require immediate treatment can too easily fall between the cracks.

Those who are diagnosed with cancer and then go through cancer treatment together form a tight bond. It’s like the new freshman class entering college.

Those who get diagnosed with cancer, but don’t require treatment are mostly left to themselves to make sense of their uncertain status. It’s like being wait-listed for college. They’re in limbo and they’re rarely connected with support programs. That’s not a comfortable position for anyone.

Ben realizes that he has a cancer that generally isn’t curable, but he notes that it is a chronic condition, not a terminal condition. He’ll likely live several more decades.

He remembers being puzzled when his oncologist told him that he had the “good” leukemia. “What can be good about leukemia?” Ben thought to himself.

But he is doing well and is healthier than before through exercise and watching his diet. Sometimes knowing what we can’t control makes us more aware of what we can control.

Reprinted with the permission of the Ithaca Journal. 

Click here for all of Bob’s columns



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