The toughest part about cancer is knowing you have it. - (6/14/2022)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

The pharmacist had a secret. Classified. Strictly confidential. Restricted info. Evidently, the cat had gotten out of the bag when one of his patients, Harvey, asked the pharmacist one day, "Say, doc, you're losing your hair, and you look a lot thinner. Are you OK?" Ah, the moment of truth has arrived. The pharmacist would never lie. Yet, gossip is contagious. The pharmacist responded as light-heartedly as possible, "I am being treated for cancer. The drugs make me lose weight and send my hair down the bathtub drain. But I feel fine." Harvey turned white and apologized profusely. He was mortified. Precisely the reaction the pharmacist did not want. But what did the pharmacist expect?   

Why do some folks keep their cancer diagnosis under wraps? Could it be the awkward conversations that follow disclosure? Could it be the well-meaning promises of "thoughts and prayers"? The pharmacist, being the practical sort, would rather receive a tuna noodle casserole, thank you! The pharmacist worried about being judged for having a malignancy linked to a lifestyle choice (Didn't you smoke back in the day?). He scoffed at being defined by his disease. We've all lapsed into that: Oh, Bert the Diabetic, Thelma the Asthmatic, or Bob, the AIDS guy. And now the Pharmacist with Cancer. This stigma could hurt his business, causing patients to back away, fearing they would have to say goodbye at some sad point. His attempt at privacy was merely to control an uncontrollable reality. Everything is normal if he pretends it is, right? 

The pharmacist is in his third year of living with cancer. It's like dying a slow death. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. He feels OK, but he knows – from the pet scans and x-rays to his trusted oncologists, to the blood work and the toxic drugs being pumped into his body – cancer will eventually eat him alive. So, is it better to be unknowing? To wander into the doctor's office one day, feeling under the weather. Only to be told that you have a brain tumor bigger than a casaba melon? "And there is nothing we can do." Then, two weeks later, *poof* you are gone, no muss, no fuss. No more pills or medical bills.   

Truth be told, the pharmacist looks at his cancer as a challenge. Each otherwise ho-hum day becomes a shiny new object in which to immerse himself. And he is free! We all know we will die, but it is on the back burner, the back shelf stashed in the attic with the old clothes and ancient memories. But knowing this is arguably more imminent, with a more explicit expiration date, makes him capable of flight. A surging of happiness. The buoyant journey of being. To recognize his mortality and to share his contentment with others. 

Yes, he makes inappropriate jokes about his cancer. He playfully goads his doctors into pinning down an end date, only to chuckle when he sees them squirm ever so slightly. The pharmacist deals with cancer as a practical joke. As a dodgeball game he knows he won't win. He reacts as if he sat on a whoopee cushion at a stuffy party, with a guffaw and a hearty slap on the knee. He is the last person to curl into a fetal position on the kitchen floor, gnashing his teeth and crying, "Why me, Lord? WHY ME?" 

Actually, he has the dog to walk and the gardens to weed. He has a trip to plan and a book to read. A sunset on which to meditate and a sunrise that will make him smile. And – until the moment he cannot do it anymore – no one person or thing will deflate him. Sometimes knowing that you have cancer is the toughest part – the anticipation, the fear, the unknown. But it can be the easiest and the sweetest way to conclude one's life if you embrace it. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press.

The content contained in this article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Reliance on any information provided in this article is solely at your own risk.


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