The first time I ever heard the word, “cancer,” I was seven years old and my grandfather had it in his stomach. By the time the Archer County Hospital doctor found it, there was nothing anyone could’ve done in 1969. So my Papa died of stomach cancer in the early spring when I was in the second grade.
From then on, any time someone spoke of cancer I immediately thought death. I began to pay attention to other people’s reactions when cancer was mentioned, watching the expressions on their faces, listening to the tone of their voices change, and I realized they thought the same thing. The expressions were at the very least concerned and the tones were hushed and serious. Truth was, in those early years of my life, no one who was diagnosed with any kind of cancer lived. When you heard that someone had cancer, that was it. Because back then, hardly anything could be done to treat it.
Back then the word “cancer” conjured up an image and feeling similar to what everyone experiences when reading about the “death eaters” in the Harry Potter series.
Funny how that word has changed in this century.
It doesn’t have near the power that it once did.
Even when I heard it in specific reference to me recently. Now I can think it. I can read it. I can even say it aloud. I can say that I have cancer and know that that word doesn’t carry near the weight it once did in my life. But it still stings for my cousins who lost their father, in less than two months after they first heard the word. For my friends whose parents died long before their time. For my friends’ children who lost their mothers, long before any of us thought possible.
So I don’t take the word “cancer” lightly.
But I also refuse to live with the old connotation of the word. You know, the connotative meaning that includes the thoughts and feelings that I personally attach to a word, beyond the dictionary meaning. That’s just one reason communication is so difficult for us sometimes because we each bring our own unique definition to every word that comes out of our mouths, and the meaning for the listener may be quite different from what the speaker intended to convey. The word “cancer” has a long history, and in many cases, lots of pain connected to it. So I could stay there with my old definition, or I can allow more recent history, with much more hopeful experiences, to shape how I see cancer.
Because I know so many people, including my daddy, who have survived cancer – far more now than the lives it stole in earlier years – the word has taken on new meaning for me.
Thanks to improvements in medicine, thanks to the dedication of men and women who are gifted in scientific discovery, thanks to the tenacity of people who are committed to finding ways to make life better for us – thanks to science and our God-breathed capacity to explore, investigate and learn – we know more about cancer.
And eventually the word “cancer” doesn’t seem nearly as scary as it once did.