World Cancer Day: My Tribute to Katie

Friends and Family,

Today is World Cancer Day! To mark the occasion, several of my lung cancer blogger buddies agreed that we would blog about relationships with people that have other cancers. You can find a link to the stories HERE.

When we picked this topic, I knew who I wanted to write about. This woman planted the seeds of change in my attitude about living with cancer, and it happened long before I was ever diagnosed.

Back before I got into commercial real estate, I worked in mental health. (Don’t ask. Just know that I got my own mental health back when I left the field.) Katie Hartnett worked with me at Providence hospital, where I coordinated the psychiatric admissions, and she ran the cancer counseling program. My job also included making referrals to mental health providers. That’s how Katie and I met: Sometimes she saw people that needed counseling for more than cancer, so I helped her with referrals. Sometimes the people that called me for mental health referrals needed counseling for their cancer, so I referred them to Katie.

We had known each other for years, before a five-minute conversation with her changed how I viewed the world.

One day, I ran into her Katie in the halls. After some brief chit-chat, she said, "I don't know if you've heard, but I've been diagnosed with cancer. It's a Stage IV cancer that is so spread throughout my body that they can’t even tell where it even started." I awkwardly admitted that I had heard the news. Then she said, "Isn't it a blessing! I've had all these wonderful patients over the years to teach me how to deal with it!"

What a rush! When we finished talking, I walked away thinking, "WOW! If I ever get cancer, THAT is the kind of attitude that I would want to have!" What an inspiration!

Needless to say, when I was first diagnosed with cancer seven years later, Katie was one of the first people that I contacted. She was still alive, and cancer free. With that kind of attitude, of course she was!

The first lesson I learned from Katie had been about gratitude, and finding the blessings in any situation. But seven years later, I learned more.

One of those lessons was when she told me that, when people are diagnosed with cancer, she is much more concerned with how the family members are coping than she is with the person who has cancer. I have to admit that I didn’t get it at first, but over time it became more and more clear.

The person with cancer gets all of the support and attention, while the family members feel powerless. Our loved ones have the same fears as we do, but no control over what happens. They also have a completely separate set of fears: “What will my life be like if my loved one dies?” There are fears of being left alone, of financial difficulties, of not knowing how to manage some things, of how to support the other family members. Their life could change dramatically, but in most circumstances it doesn’t feel right for them to make their own needs the center of attention. “How can I worry about my problems while my loved one could be dying?” But the needs are real, and critical to a full life. They don’t even want to talk about it with the person who has cancer, for fear that they will be adding a burden to a loved one fighting for survival. How lonely that must get at times. So yes, I understand how important it is that my own loved ones, particularly Genevieve, are listened to, and supported.

Katie also left me with another lesson, but I’m pretty sure she had no idea how much this one meant to me. She said it so off-handedly that I was sure that she had taken the idea for granted by this point. She said, "I've worked with many people who dealt successfully with cancer. Some of them survived..."

What? You mean you can deal with cancer successfully, even if you don't survive it?

My first instinct had been to believe that the math was pretty simple: Living = success, and death = failure. But when you think about it, that's pretty bad criteria. That would mean that we're all going to fail, because none of us will live forever.

De-coupling success from survival excited me. If you can only succeed by living cancer-free, then having cancer that was considered terminal meant I was slowly failing. What a defeatist way for anyone to live the last part of life! Not gonna do it!

I am now free to succeed at living with cancer, rather than to fail if I die from it.

So how do you succeed at living with cancer? The answer may be different for different people, but one of the answers for me is this:

Treat cancer as a growth opportunity.

I'm learning new ways to grow every day. I find more things that bring me joy, like tiny wind-up toys, and listening to my granddaughter tell me about her favorite teachers. I'm learning more about accepting myself, such as accepting my flaws without being self-critical. My relationships are getting deeper and more satisfying. I keep finding more that leaves me feeling grateful, like the plants and flowers I see when I walk at lunchtime, and coming home in the evening to a warm house on a cold wet day. It keeps getting easier to find what brings joy, or beauty, or playfulness to my world.

Does that sound more like failure or success? Slow destruction or growth?

Thank you, Katie, for sharing the gift of perspective.



*** A Special Request***

I'm participating in an event to raise money to fight lung cancer - and I need your help!  

I'm planning to attend LUNGevity Foundation's National HOPE Summit in Washington, DC, in May - it's a special conference just for lung cancer survivors like me. If I can raise $1000 or more in donations, LUNGevity will cover my travel expenses, including US round-trip transportation and hotel accommodations.

Proceeds from this fundraiser will benefit LUNGevity Foundation, the leading private provider of research funding for lung cancer. LUNGevity Foundation is firmly committed to making an immediate impact on increasing quality of life and survivorship of people with lung cancer by accelerating research into early detection and more effective treatments, as well as providing community, support, and education for all those affected by the disease.

If you wish to donate, please go to my LUNGevity page: