With the words “Mr. Martel you have cancer,” I began my odyssey with cancer. A journey that began two days before my sixty-first birthday and a little more than two weeks before Christmas Day, 2009; but unlike what one might expect, it has not been a lonely journey, instead it’s been one filled with astounding love and joy beyond my wildest dreams. The email above, the first of what has turned out to be many email updates on my battle with cancer, served as a call-to-arms for my brother, sisters, children and close friends as well as their children, as they responded to it with an outpouring of love and compassion. A few minutes after clicking the send button, our phones began to ring madly. Within a week or two, my sister Carol somehow managed to put me in touch with a doctor leading a cutting edge study on Mantle Cell Lymphoma at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City; she provided me a solid second opinion and lifted the fog that shrouded our way forward. Family and friends began arriving regularly to offer assistance in any way possible. Before long, I was being greeted with hugs and a “we’re all praying for you,” by virtual strangers who had heard of my plight from mutual friends. In a word…I was surrounded by LOVE.
As I write, my journey nears the six-year mark, and the love continues unabated. I’ve been told by many people that my story must be told, that there are lessons I’ve learned that will help others in their journey. They’ve wondered how I continue to greet each day with a renewed joy for life, even as pain made even simple movements unbearable; how I’ve been rushed into emergency rooms and into operating rooms with a smile on my face and peace in my heart; how that smile is there each time I‘ve awakened in the recovery room. Surely, they’ve said, you want to share your insight with others so that they might face their fight with cancer in a similar manner? For a very long time I dismissed their suggestions with a smile, but, as you can see, I’ve finally come to the conclusion they are right. I too came to the understanding that my story, the decision to embrace my disease in every possible way, could and would help others in their journey. I suppose my change of heart came about in part because of questions asked and statements made by doctors and nurses in the emergency rooms I’ve “visited,” or by the surgeons, anesthesiologists and operating room nurses who have had the pleasure of seeing me as few have, from the inside out, and by the nurses and doctors who have treated me on the oncology floor at my hospital. So fate willing, my story will be told.
A little about me. I was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts on the eleventh day of December, in 1948. A little past my third birthday, my father hitched a twenty-six foot, green and pale yellow trailer to the rear bumper of our 1949, cream-colored Kaiser. He, along with my mother, older brother, younger sister and me, drove across the country to a sleepy little bedroom community outside of Los Angeles, called Montebello. For a time we lived in a trailer park near the Firestone Tire Plant; until my mother could no longer take the stench given off by the tire manufacturing process. We moved further east to El Monte and found ourselves a trailer park a couple of blocks off the main drag, where we lived for the next year or two before moving into our first house in Whittier.
Life was idyllic for this boy growing up in the fifties, just outside the city limits, surrounded by citrus orchards, unbridled nature and families from nearly every ethnicity and religious group. At one point, we had fifty-seven children living on the two streets that met at the foot of our driveway. Fifty-seven children living in fewer than twenty homes!
Although I grew up loving nature and sports, the same could not be said for academics. My mother was told by my fourth grade teacher, during a parent-teacher conference, that I could skip my homework if I was tired. Needless to say, I was tired a lot in the fourth grade and the fifth grade and the six grade and…!
My love for nature and sports continued right through high school, along with my dislike for doing homework and studying for exams. I graduated on time, probably due more to my personality than my GPA. I tried college twice, flunking out for obvious reasons the first time and quitting to work full-time, after my girlfriend mysteriously (?) became pregnant, the second. By the time I was twenty-two, I had two beautiful sons and a job restoring automatic musical instruments. Nickelodeons, band organs and large orchestrians, all machines that played beautiful music with a touch of a button. Think of it as an early computer, where holes punched in a paper roll tell the machine what notes and instruments to play. But all was not so good on the home front, with my wife and I divorcing shortly after our tenth wedding anniversary. Within a year the children were living with me full-time.
In the spring of 1983, I met Bobbie, a divorced mother of three. We fell in love and were married in a small ceremony in my parent’s backyard that November. Nearly overnight, we went from two families with two and three children respectively, to one family and five children. As you might expect, we had our challenges at home as the children grew, but those challenges only brought the two of us closer together. Today, our five children are spread across the country from coast to coast and places in between. We have eleven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren as I write. Each of our children is successful in their chosen profession and all of them remain close.
In the winter of 1974, I closed my restoration business and became the maintenance manager working for a company that manufactured high temperature concretes and other heat resistant materials. In 1978, I became the plant manager for that company and in 1980, I left to become a salesman and estimator for a company that built and rebuilt high temperature industrial furnaces. A few years later, I became the regional manager for a multi-state materials and construction company, specializing in high temperature furnaces. Leaving there in 1991, I started my own industrial furnace engineering and construction firm. Throughout those years, from 1974 until I closed my business in late 2000, I was exposed to dozens of chemicals and materials that appear on lists of known cancer-causing substances, including asbestos and benzene. Looking back now, there’s little wonder that I eventually developed some form of cancer.
Yet, I’ve never looked back on those years with bitterness, anger or even the slightest regret. It wasn’t as if I was living in a bubble, unaware of the dangers created by the vapors, gases, liquids and other materials that surrounded me on a daily basis for years on end. Rather, I was fascinated by the methods and equipment used to produce nearly everything that surrounds us, from every mode of transportation, to the houses we live in, to the utensils we use to prepare and to eat our food. Few of us give a thought to the amazing world that lies within the walls of those factories and mineral processing plants.
Some of the biggest changes in my life came in 2006, when Bobbie and I sold nearly everything and moved to the island of Oahu. I adapted quickly to the environment in Hawaii, finding it the perfect mix of beautiful weather and beautiful people. And it was here in Hawaii in 2009, that my cancer was discovered in the days following a routine procedure.
A little about this book. Throughout this book, you’ll find that the word “I” is used a lot, with good reason. A cancer diagnosis is one that will test the limits of your physical, emotional and psychological strengths; I know it has mine. It’s a deeply personal crisis that affects you beyond all others. Having said that, if you have a wife, husband, partner or significant other with whom you live, their life will be turned upside down by your diagnosis. My liberal use of the word “I” rather than “we” or “our” is not intended to diminish in anyway the effect a cancer diagnosis has on the one closest to you, nor the part he or she will play in either your return to good health or making the best of your remaining days. Bobbie’s initial reaction to our doctor’s words was far stronger than was mine…it was as if she had just received that diagnosis rather than me, and in a way she had. I’m a big part of her life just as she is a big part of mine; the loss of either from the other would leave a cavernous void not likely to be filled.
You’re not going to see the word “victim” often in this book; perhaps but once or twice. The reason is quite simple and yet profound; those afflicted with cancer are not victims. Yes, cancer is a potentially deadly illness, but that fact alone doesn’t make any of us a victim. None of us has been invaded by an alien force or duped into allowing cancer to enter our body; in reality, each of us produces every cancer cell that will ever exist within us. In my opinion, the word victim denotes a certain level of helplessness that is neither accurate nor helpful in dealing with our situation. If you’ve been thinking or feeling that you are a victim, and you’re tired of feeling or thinking that way, then this book is for you. If you’re a cancer sufferer you’ll get plenty of compassion and sympathy from me, but not one iota for allowing yourself to become a victim. Let me say it again…we are not victims!
Nor are you a hero simply for battling a disease that millions of people deal with every day of their life. You may, at some point, be considered a hero or role model by others, for the way in which you deal with your illness, through your attitude, your resiliency and your kindness; but this is simply a natural outgrowth of anyone who gives his or her all through a difficult time or challenge.
The email you’ll find before each chapter is my attempt to prepare you for what’s to be found within the chapter. You may be interested to know that each of these emails was sent on the date noted. If you’d like to read all of the emails in chronological order, you can turn to the section called, “Emails,” where each one appears in its unedited form. The Table of Contents provides an outline of each chapter and an index at the conclusion to help you locate important concepts quickly and easily. I’ve also included an appendix that offers organizations, with phone numbers and email addresses that may be of assistance to you. Lastly, I’ve included my contact information, so that you can reach out to me with any questions or comments. Since most of us are running a little short on time, I’ll do my very best to get back to you ASAP.
What Does My Story Have To Do With You And Your Cancer?
It’s a good question, one deserving of a serious response. Simply put, I’m down the road-a-piece (peace), ahead of you on the journey. That being the case, I’ve had an opportunity to survey the path that awaits you and to plot a course to not only speed you on your way, but also to help you avoid the many bumps and potholes that lie unseen ahead. But more than that, there are forks and crossroads as well, if I can help you choose the correct forks and the right turns, than I’ve succeeded in my quest. With that, I offer you my guidance to ease your journey and to help you find joy in your life; joy that we all deserve.
How This Book Can Help Even Those Without Cancer Find A Life Well-Lived.
Although my motive for writing Embracing Cancer – Embracing Life is to assist those with a cancer diagnosis find their joyful spirit, I believe this book has tremendous value to those who have not heard the words, “You have cancer,” as well. Most everyone I’ve had the pleasure to talk with has a yearning, deep within, to find the path to a life well-lived, and why not? Each of us will leave this world eventually, essentially as we arrived, with nothing. The one distinction between our first breath and our last will be our complete understanding of the value of our life, to ourselves and to those around us. Imagine living your entire life without discovering the real you. To realize you completely missed the point! Wouldn’t that be a shame?
The guidance I’ve offered throughout this book, will help anyone with a desire to live a life “well-lived.” In the chapter entitled, “The Journey from Dread to Joy,” I’ve laid out a path each of us should take before we ever hear those three ominous words I mentioned a moment ago. I wish I’d been given the advice I now offer to you; make the most of it.
I’ve made every effort to make this book a living document, one that will keep its relevancy with the passage of time. The fact is, that as I write today, the National Cancer Institute predicts that nearly forty percent of all Americans will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lifetime, so an in-depth guidebook on living a joyful life with cancer is not only important, but necessary. It is my sincere hope that this book provokes a wider discussion not only of sickness and death within the cancer community, but in society as a whole. My hope is that readers will discover ways in which to live a more meaningful life through discussion and contemplation of the thoughts and ideas laid out in this manuscript.
You may have noticed that this book is far from epic in its proportions. The reason for this is quite simple: Bluntly speaking, many of us with cancer don’t have a lot of…well, time. Come to think about it, none of us has a lot of time. Why would you choose a 1,000 page book of charts or maps, when a few pages will guide you safely to your destination? With that in mind, I’ve filled these pages with what I’ve found to be important information; presented in a light-hearted manner, befitting the irony of this reality we call life. I hope it will help you not only embrace your illness, but also help you see the beauty of life every day you have left on this marvelous planet we call earth. Shall we begin?
In my next post on this page, we’ll discuss why embracing your cancer is right for you.