Thursday, January 18, 2007
My childhood memories of cancer
Every time I hear the word "cancer," I think of the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon. The weekend before I started the fourth grade, my sister and I were conducting a used-toy sale in our driveway to benefit "Jerry's kids." We were broiling in the late summer sun, so we went inside to get something to drink. The telethon was on TV. My mom was on the phone, her back to us. The only words I remember hearing were "leukemia" and "Joe." I knew she was talking about her baby brother, my beloved Uncle Joe. And although I had never heard the word "leukemia" before, I knew something was terribly wrong.
My mom sat us down and told us my uncle had cancer and that he was heading to Maryland for treatment. I asked if he was going to die. My mom started to cry.
By Columbus Day, cancer had killed my Uncle Joe. He was only 22.
I don't remember much from the funeral except that my parents wanted us to know that good could come from my uncle's death. My uncle's illness, they said, would help doctors learn more about how to beat cancer in the future.
Wednesday morning, I was happy to read that U.S. cancer rates have dropped for the second year in a row. (Full Story) Science is making amazing breakthroughs. But I think it has something to do with the fact that many people are taking a stand and refuse to think of cancer as an automatic death sentence.
As part of Dr. Sanjay Gupta's special about cancer (Saving Your Life) I recently visited southwest Georgia, which has one of the highest mortality rates for cancer in the nation. There, I met up with Grace Miller and Jane Stoutenborough. They are "foot soldiers" in the war against cancer. Many afternoons they drive the back roads of rural Georgia visiting people in their homes and offering free cancer screenings. Their efforts are paying off. Recently, one of the women they visited learned she was in the early stages of cervical cancer. She got treatment and is doing great. It's just one more example of the little victories we are winning on the war against cancer.
I still can't watch the Jerry Lewis Telethon without crying. I still get sad when I think about losing my Uncle Joe so young. He would have been a great dad. But more than 20 years later, I still believe my parent's words are true. No cancer death is in vain. Each one helps doctors come one step closer to saving someone else's Uncle Joe. Do you have an "uncle Joe" whose battle with cancer inspired you?
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