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Humility before honor

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By Carolyn Ten Broeck

It’s been 14 weeks since I learned that I had B-cell lymphoma.

That seems like a short time–only three and a half months–but in some ways it seemed like an eternity.

In the beginning it was a seemingly endless parade of doctors and tests. Just when I thought I was finished, I received another referral; another test; another opinion.

Driving to Gainesville two or three times a week–and later every day–gave me a lot of time for contemplation and self discovery.

My faith grew stronger. My mood more pensive. I opened my mind up to a new adventure and absorbed all around me.

Many of us encounter people with life-threatening illnesses and it’s human nature to feel sympathetic, and sometimes empathetic. But truth is, most of us feel helpless when we see these people face to face. What can you say? What are the right words?

Sometimes there is nothing to say. A hug or a gentle touch on the arm says all that needs to be said.

“It is what it is,” I’ve said to more than one person who looked at me sorrowfully and didn't know what to say.

Over the past 14 weeks I have been inundated with emails, cards, letters, texts–all from people offering good thoughts, prayers and well wishes for a full restoration of health. People I don’t even know took the time to reach out and say, “I’m thinking of you.”

Pastors stopped by the office to pray for me. People I interviewed asked if I could be added to prayer chains. Flowers were left in our drop box at the office. My cousin set up a Facebook page where I could post health updates and receive messages.

I was humbled by it all. Who am I to receive such an outpouring of genuine concern? What did I do to deserve all the good people who were supporting me?

The last referral was a radiologist who determined I needed 12 radiation treatments to ensure the original lymphoma had not spread into deep tissue.

So for 12 days–12 consecutive days–I drove to Shands for my treatment. And for 12 consecutive days I looked around the waiting room at other cancer patients. There’s something about being with the same people day in and day out, people who share a misery that bonds you into a fellowship like none other.

As I sat there each day looking at each person, I felt so blessed. For many of them this was not a cure. It was simply a way to buy a few more days, months, maybe a year, to be with the people they loved.

Some people were there for their second or third round of radiation after recurrence. Some were brought in on stretchers, in wheelchairs, or hobbled in on canes. They are the ones deserving of prayers, well wishes and good thoughts, I thought every day. They shared their stories, described their treatments and spoke of better days ahead. Many were so sick they couldn't hold their heads up, but I heard whispered, "I'll pray for you" as they left the room.

I felt guilty. My type cancer was so . . .so . . . simple comparatively. I drew strength from their smiles and inspiration from their words. Again I was humbled to be in the presence of such courage.

It was the third or fourth day of treatment that I felt compelled to tell two lovely women, Ms. Rose and Ms. Hazel, that they had been in thoughts and prayers. For the next two weeks, we shared of ourselves and tightened the bond. At Shands, when you complete treatment you are encourage to go into the hall and ring the liminal bell. “Liminal” comes from the Latin word for threshold and ringing the bell symbolizes crossing over into a new day of living.

Ms. Rose and Ms. Hazel came for bell ringing, taking videos with their iPads, posing with me for pictures and completely, utterly sharing my joy. My life is so much richer thanks to those 12 days in a waiting room.

And I learned just how expensive it is to be sick–and get well.

I don't know how people with catastrophic illness, who have private insurance, handle the daily deluge of medical bills that come their way.

Even after deductibles are met and out-of-pocket expenses are paid, some insurances will only pay a percentage for radiation, chemo and other follow-up treatments.

The costs are astounding. Not only does the patient and family have to worry about dying, they must also worry about how they will pay those bills, which only compounds the way to a successful recovery due to financial stress.

I met someone who had to file medical bankruptcy because of this. Despite working, there was no way they could work out a payment plan for tens of thousands of dollars.

Whether it's cancer, heart bypass or something else, an illness can leave someone poorer than a church mouse in a month or less.

It's humbling to know someone can go from financially solvent to near destitute in an effort to be whole.

I know the next time I meet someone who is battling a chronic illness, instead of asking if there's anything I can do for them, I will slip them a $20. I know at least then they will be able to have a meal they won't have to pay for from their wallet.

From start to finish, from February to now, I have been humbled by the events and people who have crossed my path on this journey.

I have learned that despite my jaded view of the world after 25 years in the newspaper business that there are many good, genuine people who, when they say, "I care" really mean it.

And I know, without doubt, that my cancer is "simple" compared to many because of unshakeable faith and the power of prayer.

Last week I finished radiation and rang the liminal bell in the lobby at Shands.

"Liminal" is Latin for "threshold" and indeed I did cross over a threshold into a new day of living.

Life is short. It is too short to hold grudges or deny forgiveness. It is too short to not do the things you dream today rather than waiting for a future that may not happen. It is too short not to reach out and love often and as deeply as you can.

Life is too short to take for granted. I didn't before and I won't ever again.