Andy’s Letter: Happy Birthday to Me!

Happy Birthday to Me! If you know me well enough to know the date on which I was born in 1962, you might be scratching your head right now. No, not the date my Mother gave birth to me. The birthday I am referring to is Jan. 10, 2001. That is the day my “counts” started to increase during my fight with cancer. I will spare you all the details, but up until then I had been on the losing ends of round after round of treatments. That day the auto stem cell transplant was the treatment that finally worked. The nurses refer to that day, Jan. 10, 2001, as my new birthday because that was the day I stopped dying and started my new life.

So why am I talking about this now? In February of this year I saw Dr. Kaminski, the cancer doctor specialist in charge of my case, and he told my wife and me that he was discharging me from his practice. “What does that mean?” we thought. We were apprehensive and more than a little worried. Dr. K looked at us with reassurance and said it was a good thing, that there was no need for him to follow up on my care any longer. Wow, the long journey together had come to an end as we’ll now continue in separate directions.

A couple years ago I gave a speech at the Cancer Survivors’ Dinner. In it I tried to summarize what I learned about coping with a life threatening disease into several rules that I called “Andy’s Rules for Dealing with Cancer.” While not all encompassing, perhaps these rules can be applied to life. Let me see if I can pull that off here today.

  1. Andy’s First Rule of Fighting Cancer: Find a caregiver. Take a family member, a good friend, or someone that will help you to the consultations and appointments. These are serious, trying moments and you need someone to keep you focused and to assist with gathering facts. While in that exam room and in that office it is easy to become overwhelmed and miss important dates and instructions. That caregiver keeps you on track and saves your life. This is true in our broader lives as well. A spouse, parent, or friend can be your confidant or counselor to keep you on track and see life’s challenges objectively. Let them help you glean the facts from the falsehoods and get to the right answers and take the right actions.  Two heads are better than one. Another set of ears to hear all the noise and separate the good from the bad. We all need a caregiver.
  2. Andy’s Second Rule: Seek out a second opinion. Any good physician will not have a problem with that. I called a close high school friend that was a doctor and asked her opinion. She led me to the University of Michigan where I met Dr. Kaminski, who saved my life. Why do we arrive at an opinion and then believe it is the only option? Sometimes we even defend a bad idea because it was the first one we came up with. Look for other opinions and solutions that may have merit. Consult with your caregiver and choose the best option. Whether a medical treatment or a choice in life, seek out a second opinion.
  3. Andy’s Third Rule: Find a physician you trust. I found mine and he saved my life. If I had not trusted my doctor, I may not have followed his instructions, had confidence in my own recovery, or gone through the hellacious treatments he recommended. In life we all need professionals to help us with those things that are not in our area of expertise whether it’s financial, legal, medical, or spiritual. Find ones that you trust, open up to them, believe what they tell you, and follow their instructions. Trust is important. Find a “physician” you trust.
  4. Andy’s Fourth Rule: It’s okay to have a bad day. Ask why, have a cry, stay in bed all day when you must. But, like my brother-in-law the hockey player says, “get back in the game.” For some, an obstacle or a bad day is a reason to give up, but those things are temporary and can be made more so by getting over the bad day and moving forward. There are so many clichés that address this, “get back on the horse,” “not that you fall down, but that you get up,” “not what happens to you, but what you do about it,” “success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration,” and so on. There is some truth in every cliché and one with this many versions must be a super-truth. Don’t let it become a week or month or year, but it’s okay to have a bad day.
  5. Andy’s Fifth Rule: Don’t torture your family. For the longest time I asked my wife to keep our issues private. It was hard on her because as she supported me she could not go to others for support or recharging. When we finally publicly came out with the diagnosis the outpouring of support was amazing. It lightened her load and made it better all around. Generally, we lean on those closest to us the most. To put restrictions on their ability to share that load elsewhere is tortuous. Allow them to find the same support you ask from them. Too often we are nicer to strangers than those that we love. So, don’t torture your family.
  6. Andy’s Sixth and Final Rule: Pay it forward. Prior to my stem cell transplant, a friend shared his story about his transplant five years before that day. It was helpful and inspiring. If you can assist someone with their developing story by sharing your story, please do so. You never know when a kind word or a stern bit of advice can make a difference in another’s life. I recently read where mentoring is not always a long-term commitment of taking someone under your wing. Mentoring can be a simple bit of advice or merely an example of conduct. It doesn’t cost a thin dime. Be aware that your words can make a positive difference in the life of others and do not hesitate to pay it forward.

These rules helped me get through a tremendous medical challenge and to my new birthday. So, Happy Birthday to Me!

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