Slam cancer by getting checked

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It’s been decades since cancer was discussed in hush-hush tones and was all-too-commonly referred to as “The Big C.” That derisive description unfortunately reinforced the stigma of a cancer diagnosis, and it started to spread to another tough disease, Alzheimer’s. That’s something I experienced in 1994 when I took my mother to a neurologist, and his “professional” opinion, as he related to me and my wife with my father and mother in the room, was that she had ”The Big A.”

Thankfully, we’ve evolved as a society to the point where both cancer and Alzheimer’s patients are now treated with respect and dignity, and in the case of cancer, that’s due in large part to the advocacy and fundraising of the American Cancer Society.

One of the society’s signature fundraisers is the Relay For Life, a team event that started in 1985, when Dr. Gordon “Gordy” Klatt walked and ran for 24 hours around a track in Tacoma, Washington, raising $27,000. Relay For Life worldwide has raised more than $5 billion in the 37 years since that historic first event.

Locally, the Relay For Life of Greater Attleboro began on the North Attleboro High School track in 1999. My participation started the next year and has kept me returning every year since, as a team member, captain and volunteer. (The 24th annual event will be held June 17-18 at the Norton Middle School in Massachusetts.)

I’ve been doing this for two reasons:

  1. Cancer has touched scores of friends and relatives, to whom I pay tribute at the relay by lighting luminaria for both survivors and victims.
  2. To raise money to fight cancer and increase awareness about the disease.

That’s why I’m pleased that the relay, for the third year in a row, is partnering with a trusted community organization. In 2020, right before the pandemic hit, that effort resulted in a collaboration with the Attleboro Arts Museum on a compelling art show. In 2021, we held a new event, Slam Cancer, in conjunction with the Attleboro Public Library, and we’re repeating it this year.

Slam Cancer encourages people of all ages to share original poems and essays. Last year’s writers wrote passionately on many topics, and it’s in that spirit that I want to make this point about cancer: be vigilant about the disease before it sneaks up on you.

That’s what happened to me earlier this year, when – after procrastinating for way too long – I saw a dermatologist about a spot on my nose that turned out to be a form of skin cancer that required surgery. That prompted the doctor to do a complete skin check on me, and he found another cancerous spot, this time inside my right ear, which also required surgery about a month after the previous procedure.

I was somewhat surprised at first that I had skin cancer since on those rare times that I went to the beach, I headed for the shade and used gobs of sunscreen. But after reflection, I realized I’ve been running in the sun during warmer weather, when my head is covered with only a baseball cap, for 47 years, and sunscreen alone won’t prevent cancer.

I was nervous about the surgeries, but everything turned out well. The surgeon and her assistants were professional, compassionate and understanding, and they removed all of the cancer.

I feel guilty about sharing my experience, because over the years I’ve written about people suffering from a variety of far more serious and debilitating forms of cancer, such as the pancreatic cancer that took my cousin’s life five years ago well before his time, or the colon, lung, prostate, breast and blood cancers that claim hundreds of thousands a year, including far too many children and teens.

However, I ultimately decided to talk about it to emphasize the point that cancer is an indiscriminate disease. It’s incumbent on us to be proactive by getting screened and tested early if something looks or feels suspicious. That approach has taken on a new urgency this year after millions delayed screenings during the first two years of the pandemic, with the result that many cancers were discovered at later, more advanced, stages.

The need to get that message out is why I’ll be involved in the Relay For Life of Greater Attleboro for as long as the event exists.

LARRY KESSLER (larrythek65@gmail.com) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro. He blogs at  https://larrytheklineup.blogspot.com