Being in a children’s hospital exposes one to not only a lot of sick kids and horrible diseases but to some amazing parents.
Recently there was a child with a common virus, but the father had an uncommon disease. Mike (not his real name) was diagnosed with a malignant skin cancer some years ago. The primary lesion was excised, and all was well until it was discovered in the past couple of months to have spread to his lymph nodes at the base of his neck.
By all medical standards, this is not good. Recovery from metastatic melanoma is not common if reported at all.
Yet, I have never seen anyone healthier. He was happy. What better indicator of health is that? If we poll people about their healthiness, meaning their happiness, how many with cancer and probable early death would define themselves in those terms?
For that matter, how many of us without an intimate terminal diagnosis can say the same thing? Many with only the sniffles can’t bring themselves to say they are happy.
When we hospitalize children, we infuse glucose, fluids and medicines. We provide much needed supplemental oxygen. While we administer therapies to the patient, we also care for the worried, tired parent.
Instead, Mike treated the healers. He spoke of how fortunate it was for him to have cancer. He could think of no better person to have it. He was not in denial or delusional. He was happy by choice and by action.
When we speedily drive down a freeway, we pass the outside world. We swish past buildings, signs and people. We propel along as if we are sitting stationary and the scenery flashes by us.
Imagine that our thoughts are the objects outside the windows. They are images of our mind, just the light reflected off the objects or countryside. Instead of photons shooting through our lens and striking the retina, our memories, thoughts or impressions are quanta of energy created as impulses that travel around the complex freeway of nerve pathways. Like the pictures in our brain, our thoughts need for us to stare at them to bring them meaning.
The flashes of the scenery are mostly blurs, movement without meaning. Our minds put labels on some of the visual images or our scattered thoughts, but for the most part we let them go by unmolested. We do not have to bother with the passing distractions because we are safely inside our vehicle.
But unlike a blissful summer drive, when we become discouraged or afraid, we too often roll down the windows, unlock the locks, open the door and step out of the zooming car. We couldn’t let go of the fleeting elements of the past that discourage or depress. Instead, we end up somewhere on the side of the road all scraped up and bruised.
Mike is different. He keeps the doors closed and the windows locked. He has learned to realize what is external to him is not real.
Certainly, cancer cells are real. A surgeon can operate and remove the tumors, holding them in his hands; a pathologist can take the specimen, stain it and look at it under a microscope and see the nasty looking cells. The oncologist knows the statistics of survival and administers hopeful medicines that will seek out and destroy the malignancy. The radiation oncologist aims for the area to kill those cancers that are ungratefully eager to do the same to their human host.
It is the fear, the weakness, the doubts, the unfairness of it all that Mike chooses to call fake. He has separated his reality from the multiplying cancer. The transitory impressions on the wayside are allowed to pass untouched.
In the end, his child went home, but Mike left us more humbled and grateful healers.
In spite of viruses and cancer, Mike, his wife and child all departed in the best of health.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.