When I was a little girl the modern mode of communication in our house was our very clunky rotary dial black phone with a jacketed (material) round line cord that stretched two feet from the phone to the wall. It was at the hub of our house in the tiny hallway that opened to all the other rooms–living room, kitchen, bathroom, upstairs to my older sister’s room, my room shared with my Finn, and my parents’ bedroom. A hub with no privacy.

If you grew up in the 1950’s and had a phone, the word privacy was further blocked by being on a party line. A live operator connected you to your phone call, but then no one else on the party line could use their phone. Often when you picked up the phone you could hear other people talking.

When my mother got a phone call one afternoon, we overheard:




“I see.”

Then there was murmuring as she dragged the phone into the bathroom, the semi-private area of our house. It only took a few minutes, then click and clunk as she hung up and put the phone back on the little hall table.

My twin sister and I were experts at “reading” moods, atmospheric tension, and body language. Since we were in our room and Mom went into the kitchen with Dad, we heard one six-letter word. Cancer. Then “my mother.” “Funeral.” The air felt thick, almost gray. I learned early on to label it “fear.”

After that phone call I don’t remember any discussions with us. It seems most of my information came from my peers (the Big C), or books in the library (definitions of malignant, surgery, drugs, fatal).

Words are powerful.

It starts with a six-letter word. Cancer.

Then it gets personal: Your neck, brain, skin, lung, breast, bone, soft tissue, sinus, pancreas, uterus, pituitary, renal, vascular.

Then it gets specific: Tumor, lymphoma, leukemia, melanoma, neoplasm, sarcoma.

It gets more specific and more complex: Rhabdomyosarcoma. Esthesioneuroblastoma.

Being Proactive.

Over the years I did what worked for me to diffuse fear of not knowing when a medical issue arose. I asked friends. I went online. I read books; I had good rapport with my doctors.

It helped – some. My grandmother’s cancer was fatal. My sister-in-law died from cancer. My husband’s mother died from cancer. Unlike today I don’t remember hearing of anyone who survived cancer. In 2014 my stepdaughter was diagnosed with lung cancer, which metastasized to her brain. She lived in New Jersey; we were in Tucson. We lived in fear and apprehension every time the phone rang.

Being Very Proactive.

One evening at a Toastmasters meeting, I saw Laura was on the agenda as a speaker. Title of her speech: “I’m Not Afraid of Cancer.” Cancer. The big C. I was back in the gray atmosphere. Not afraid? Come on, who is she kidding?!?!?

I forced myself to listen. Laura’s cancer survival was the first I heard where a patient was very proactive. Of course she got info from her doctors; she’s a Toastmaster and we Toastmasters talk and listen. But Laura did more. She incorporated seven areas of her life that underwent ‘training’ to protect her and help do battle with her cancer. “I made that list based on my research; I didn’t even realize it was seven things until just before giving the speech –  I counted them to ensure I repeated the list without missing one. I’m pleased to provide it here:  diet, sleep, stress management, exercise, community, faith, and freedom from toxic exposures.”

I copied the list to remind myself to personalize this – diet can be the cancer fighting kitchen diet, or go green, or macro, or Mediterranean. Stress management can be yoga, meditation, affirmations, tai chi, walking, journaling. What I came away with was being pro-active and having an inner locus of control can cancel out the debilitating emotion of feeling like a powerless victim.

When a close friend was diagnosed with cervical cancer two years ago, she heard the word cancer, followed by a blur of words and a buzzing sound for the rest of the “test result consult.” When her partner read back some of the information he had written at the doctor’s, he realized there were gaps in the notes he took. That one word and the meanings and experiences attached have caused countless emotional and physical reactions.

Sadly and yet thankfully they both knew people who had gone through treatment and could fill in some of the gaps. They also were online in the next 24 hours, and in touch with her doctor, and the American Cancer Society.

In the last two years, more people in my life have been diagnosed, battled and won (some more than once) against cancer. Some, like my stepdaughter and brother-in-law, fought courageously each morning, each treatment session, each nightime and yet lost the battle with this horrible disease. Some are still holding the line. My friend B. emails me that her numbers are down. “The doctor did not see any other areas of cancer. I’m so happy.”

A Resource by Survivors.

Just this week I read Mary Maas’s book Sisterhood of the Wounded Breast. Reading this book is a journey alongside 22 courageous women gathered by the equally courageous cancer survivor, Mary Maas, who gathered the memories and stories of survivors of this horrendous “equal-opportunity” disease. Some of the women state the facts of the tests, discoveries, and decisions to fight their disease. Other stories open the doors of fears, indecision, searching and living for months not knowing the outcomes. Those were the hardest to read and yet the ones I appreciate the most.

Most survivors shared heartfelt stories of the support and overabundance of kindness of partners, spouses, churches, medical professionals, friends and their own personal spiritual power that will surely boost a reader’s faith in humanity. I could only add up my minimal aches and pains and find I was filled with sorrow for their harrowing times mixed with admiration for the determination of these 22 women. It’s a hard read but one I am grateful to have read.

Laura emailed me, “If nothing else, I hope that learning there are options may help folks feel empowered to help heal themselves, which all by itself can do wonders for one’s outlook and attitude.”

Self Talk.

My friends and the survivors in Mary Maas’s book leave me speechless. How do they do it? More than one survivor has said something like, “You wake up each day and get out of bed. You put on clean clothes, look in the mirror and say, ‘I love you.’ Close your eyes and say, ‘Thank you. I can do this.’ You have friends or family who look at you and say, ‘I love you, we can do this.’”

So what’s the takeaway from this? I’m certainly less apt to take my health for granted. I’m more aware of being compassionate, willing to offer specific help to friends, and to continue to learn, in any way I can about health and healing.

Please feel free to send comments, share your experiences and thoughts about dispelling that fear when it threatens to take over. We can do this.

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.