The Eclectic Mind: Four-plus years living with the Big C

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Roger VanHaren

Many of my readers are aware that I was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic prostate cancer 4½ years ago. The cancer had made its way via the bloodstream to the fourth vertebrae in my neck.

After many different treatment regimens, including radiation, several different kinds of chemotherapy (both infused and oral), and three different clinical trial studies at the Carbone Cancer Center at University of Wisconsin Hospitals, I am happy to report that I am, as a friend once said, “still vertical and able to take nourishment.”

I am not telling you about my ordeal as an appeal for your sympathy; rather I want to share some of my observations since I was diagnosed. Some people would say there is no upside to having a life-threatening illness, and, for sure, I would never have voluntarily chosen to go down this path. But life is unpredictable, and we don’t always get to choose what direction it will lead.

I’m 80 years old, and until 2015, I’d been a very active person. I walked 18 holes of golf several times a week. Marilyn and I walked and hiked, rode our bicycles, worked out at the Y, and did a lot of volunteer work in the community.

The news that I had cancer ripped away some of the expectations I had had of myself to be a certain type of person with a certain type of life. All of a sudden, instead of being an independent doer‚ I became a person with limited mobility and a reliance on the kindnesses and goodwill of others.

Cancer robs you of your ability to look at the big picture — or at least obscures it. I had spent a lifetime focusing on the big picture, but cancer has forced me to look at the small picture. I had no choice. I quickly learned that trying to predict the results of radiation and a long regimen of hormone and steroid therapy was a tortuous and futile exercise. All I could do was to go along for the ride. So I was forced to focus on the present.

I hesitate to use the word “gift” in the same sentence as cancer‚ but in some ways, maybe my cancer has been a gift. Rather than being an ominous dark rain cloud hanging over my head, it has opened my eyes to the kindness and compassion of the people around me and allowed me to face the future with optimism and a positive outlook.

So cancer has not been all bad (that sounds so strange to write). I have learned just how much my family and friends care about me. For the first six months, Marilyn was forced to take over some of the chores that were typically mine in addition to all of her own stuff. She was full-time chauffeur and cook and bottle washer. She was forced to sacrifice many of her activities to cater to me. Our kids and grandkids were wonderfully supportive.

My best friend, David, took over my outdoor chores and drove me to treatment sessions. He and my golf buddies came over to play cribbage and make me laugh. My next-door neighbor, Nate, cleaned out my driveway a couple of times. Friends and neighbors brought us food and flowers. We were inundated with cards, emails and phone calls. Everywhere we went, people told us they were praying for us. So, is there an upside? I think so.

As my mobility improved and I was able to resume some of my chores, I had to rely less on the goodness of others, but the kindnesses didn’t stop. Then 2½ years ago, Marilyn had a stroke that robbed her of her beautiful voice and left her somewhat disabled on her left side.

Again, our many wonderful friends came though for us. Through many arduous sessions of physical, occupational, and voice therapy, she has regained some of her abilities, but she’ll never recover everything she lost.

Our ordeals have given us a new appreciation for the many wonderful people who work in health care. So many people have been kind to us. Their competence and compassion are overwhelming.

I will spend the rest of my life grateful for every day I have, even when some days are miserable physically. I can honestly say that I have always appreciated life and the everyday things that many people may take for granted — like sunrises and sunsets, the changing colors of autumn, the pelicans on the lake, music, art, theater, good food — but now I appreciate them on a deeper level. Now that my life is on hold in some ways, I realize how much life I still want to live.

I am still a novice at learning how to live life after a diagnosis of cancer. I don’t have many answers; in fact, I don’t know if I have any. Every day, I struggle, and every day, I rejoice. I am struggling to find my new balance and my purpose, and I rejoice in all the blessings I have been given. I am trying to value who I am today and stop comparing to who I was “before.”

I have cancer, but it doesn’t have me!

Contact Roger VanHaren at