Climbing Back from Cancer
The Second Time Around
by R. Sutton Wright
Twelve years ago, I was sitting in a surgeon’s office. He told me that I had stage IV cancer and that he had to remove my entire tongue, my voice box, and the large muscles on either side of my neck. I felt as if he was talking to somebody standing behind me. He couldn’t possibly be saying it to me.
After all, I had just been written up in a national glossy magazine as one of the top three lifestyle coaches in New York City. And at 56 years old, I was as fit as I was at 21 and had never once used my health insurance. Twenty minutes later, I was looking out the window in a coffee shop, watching people walk by smiling and laughing. Then it finally hit me. I thought to myself, I’ll never laugh again.
A friend of mine suggested I go to Memorial Sloan- Kettering Cancer Center because they had an experimental program for my type of cancer that was designed to preserve a person’s quality of life. By utilizing a combined treatment of massive doses of chemo and radiation, I would be able to keep all my body parts. It didn’t take much convincing for me to participate in that program.
Those six months felt as if I were in a dream. But it was a good dream because I was doing something to battle the cancer. As promised, when it was all done, they told me that the treatment was successful. I was cancer free. But why didn’t I feel better mentally? Yes, my tumors had melted away, but so had my clients, my girlfriend, 30 pounds of muscle, and all my self-confidence.
It was a long, hard climb, but I did it.
As luck would have it, a few weeks later the beauty editor and spa critic who had put me in that magazine reappeared. “Hey, Chemo Sabe,” she said, “how come you never returned my phone calls? I am writing a book on how to set up your own at-home spa, and I need your help for the exercise section.”
“Sorry,” I told her, “I’m still very depressed, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back to work. Between us, even though I was assured that the cancer is gone, every morning when I get up, I feel emotionally and physically drained, and I am obsessed with worry that it may return.”
I glanced furtively around, pulled a latex glove out of my pocket, put it on, and stuck my finger down my throat. “Please don’t say anything to anyone,” I confided, “but I have this compulsion to keep checking the base of my tongue every few hours to see if the tumor grew back.”
“Just imagine what you’d be doing now if you had prostate cancer,” she said with a smile. We both burst out laughing; it was the first time I had laughed in six months. “Listen, it won’t take much energy for you to help me with this book. And it might help you start to get your life back.”
That was the jump-start that I needed. It was a long and hard climb, but I did it. A year later, when I was feeling like my old self again, I decided, because there were so many things I had to do to get there, I wanted to make it easier for anyone else recovering from a serious illness. So Jane, the beauty editor, and Dr. Sherman, an oncologist friend of mine, helped me design a program that we called “Better Than Before.”
We used a symbolic ladder, a tribute to my 20 years in the New York City Fire Department’s elite Rescue Squad. Each of the 12 rungs on this Ladder for Life is a different discipline: psychology, fitness, nutrition, physiology, holistic healing, spirituality, beauty, spa, support, creativity, reward, and inspirational challenge. Using this ladder helped me climb back to feeling even “Better Than Before.”
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Ray Wright is currently putting the “Better Than Before” program into an easy to follow self-help booklet. He is also working on a program to prevent childhood obesity with the help of a magical pack of dogs.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2007.