Celebrating Being Cancer-free

Anniversary flowers.

Anniversaries of momentous events are generally worth celebrating. Even though we kept it low-key, our 50th wedding anniversary earlier this year was a memorable milestone.

Birthdays fit the bill, too, especially if they end in zero or five. That’s our western culture for you.

Even the anniversary of a loved one’s death needs to be remembered, reverently, openly, and most certainly emotionally. My dear mother would have been 100 on June 22. I can still hear her comforting voice, soft and clear.

Some anniversaries, however, give me pause. I always feel that way each year I get the all-clear pronouncement from my urologist.

I have been cancer-free for 10 years post-robotic prostate cancer surgery. My PSA continues to be immeasurable, meaning no detectable cancer.

When I posted those results on social media, I did so with hesitancy. I hesitated because I know too many people who have not made it through their cancer journey or are currently struggling with the disease.

I am a sensitive old guy, and posting about my good fortune could be tantamount to rubbing it in. I certainly didn’t want to come across with that attitude.

Research shows that such a mindset stems from survivor’s guilt, also called survivor’s remorse. It’s a circumstance where a person survives while others in the same situation don’t, and you feel conflicted, guilty, and remorseful about your outcome versus theirs.

It might seem irrational, but the condition applies far beyond dealing with cancer. People who survive motor vehicle wrecks or a military conflict while others are maimed or killed exhibit survivor’s guilt.

A friend of mine survived the bombing of the Marine base in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983. He happened to be away from the barracks at the time of the explosion. Guilt and anger ebbed and flowed throughout my friend’s life.

I empathized with him at the time but didn’t fully comprehend his feelings until I went through my own traumatic experience. When I met other prostate cancer patients who didn’t have the same successful outcome as me, I understood my Marine friend’s agony more fully.

Despite my reluctance, I am glad that I shared my decade of good fortune on social media. I credited my skillful surgeon and expressed thanks for the excellent medical insurance that got me through physically and financially.

A few of the comments in response to my post drew my attention and perhaps sent me over the hump of the lingering compunction. One particularly caught my eye. A former student shared about her current struggle with cancer.

She thanked me for sharing my good news. She said that seeing that others make it through the Big C gives her and other patients like her hope. Reading that brought me great joy.

Signs of hope in nature.

Her response deeply touched me because she has already been through the cancer medical mill with her husband. As a young man, he fought the good fight and won. His humility concealed his challenging journey.

Now his wife is traveling down the cancer highway. I wish her and her family all the best and will endeavor to stay in touch.

Society can easily be dismissive of others without really knowing their unique situations, hardships, and achievements. Friends need to pay attention.

Venezuelan visual artist Carlos Medina captured my sentiment with this quote, “A soul that carries empathy is a soul that has survived enormous pain.”

We can empathize by recognizing and being with the hurting, listening to their stories, or simply holding them in prayer. In those encouraging actions, there is no remorseful guilt. 

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Staying connected is really important

By Bruce Stambaugh

It didn’t take long for our year and a half old granddaughter to warm up to me when my wife and I visited with her and her family recently in Virginia. Since we live in Ohio, we don’t get to interact with them as much as we would like.

Once Maren felt comfortable in my presence, she was fascinated with my bald head. When I bent down to her toddler level, the beautiful little girl boldly reached out and patted my baldness.

Now and then, after patting and rubbing my head, she would move her hand down, and jab her dimpled index finger into my beard. That little gesture generated an ornery laugh from the precocious Maren.

Granddaughter by Bruce Stambaugh
Poppy and Maren

It was as if she were saying, “If Poppy can grow hair on his face, why can’t he grow it on top of his head?” I’d like to know the answer to that question, too.

Maren was connecting with me inquisitively, creatively. Her affectionate patting and prodding warmed my heart. I truly felt connected.

Near the end of our extended stay in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, I attended a two-day conference entitled “Conversations on Attachment.” It was about how we humans interconnect with one another, and why it’s so important, even for bald guys.

The words of the various articulate speakers evoked mental examples of meaningful interactions with others. I felt blessed.

Here were renowned psychologists, doctors, therapists, professors and theologians providing well-researched and published theories and studies confirming what I already believed. Humans are social beings designed to be interdependent. We are intended to live in community and in close relationships. One speaker described the collective process of positively relating with others as “a shared humanity.”

Before my wife and I left for our Virginia visit, our son and his wife graciously hosted us for dinner. Knowing how well they cook, I was more than glad to accept their kind invitation in honor of our 40th anniversary.

In addition to the magnificent food, we were pleasantly surprised with the inclusion of the best man at our wedding and his wife. The couple has been lifetime best friends with us. It was an engaging evening of delightful conversation and cuisine.

Texas BBQ smoker by Bruce Stambaugh
Son-in-law, Daryl Bert, and his Texas barbecue smoker

Before leaving Virginia, our daughter and son-in-law repeated the surprise performance at our last supper there. Using his best transplanted Texan barbecue skills, we dined on smoked pork ribs and incredible grilled burgers.

Again, we didn’t feast alone. Our daughter clandestinely invited four couples we had known over the years and with whom we had oft interacted. Now they all lived near her. She also invited our niece, a fellow Virginian. Just like before, we had no idea they were coming.

They each brought their own delicious dishes to complement the meaty main course. When the scrumptious meal wound down, our daughter had the guests disclose how they knew us. As the sharing evolved, something truly amazing unfolded. Though some around the table had never met, as they listened they realized they knew some of the same people mentioned in the various stories.

Their connecting with one another generated joyous revelation. The combination of the great food, inspiring conversation and spontaneous connectivity made it a truly fulfilling gathering. We had held our own attachment conference.

The great food, lively conversing and personal discoveries around the table equated with patting me on the head and poking my beard. I couldn’t get more attached than that.

Celebrating life’s successes

One room school by Bruce Stambaugh
A one room school in Holmes County, Ohio.

By Bruce Stambaugh

When a former student of mine asked for my mailing address, I was more than a little curious.

Having been a school principal for 21 years, being told by a former student to watch the mail for a package could be potentially alarming. But I knew Wilma, and had seen her joyous posts on Facebook.

I wasn’t concerned in the least. But, like I said, I was curious.

A couple of days later a puffy brown envelope arrived in the mail. Inside was a laminated badge that was my ticket to this gregarious woman’s 40th birthday party. I was impressed and pleased to be included until I saw the date.

My wife and I had a potential conflict that evening. Wilma said she was sorry to hear that because the evening was really more to celebrate the top 20 people who had influenced her life.

The top 20? This put the gathering in an entirely different light. How could I not go? I was humbled and a bit surprised to say the least, given the number of people Wilma must have known in her lifetime. I had no idea I had had that kind of influence on this successful, professional, vibrant woman. Of course we rearranged our schedule and made the celebration a priority.

After the party’s uncomplicated meal, Wilma went one-by-one around the room. She shared with those in attendance specifically how each person had impacted her life.

When my turn came, Wilma related to the group that as her principal I had visited her parents four different times encouraging them to send her on to high school. I had no recollection of any of the visits. Maybe I should run for President.

Wilma proceeded to say that I was the only person to encourage her to extend her education, and she would never forget it. For once in my life, I hardly knew what to say.

Following her parent’s wishes, Wilma did not attend high school. But later she did get her GED and her bachelor’s degree and is now working on a graduate degree in clinical psychology. What a success story. Maybe I’ll be her first patient.

This grateful woman detailed how others had energized her life when she needed it the most. Her lavish, infectious laughter and joy permeated the party.

Now, Wilma had inspired me. I mentally listed the 20 most influential people in my own life. There had been so many who had helped me along life’s way. I had a hard time narrowing it down.

A handful of people on my list were former teachers and professors, too. Several of them had already left this earthly realm.

There are those for whom I still have time to thank. I have committed to personally commend them individually for the positive role they have played in my life. It will be fun to share the good news.

Following Wilma’s lovely example, I encourage you to do the same. Who are the top 20 most influential people in your life? Have you told them? If not, maybe a celebration is in order. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate dinner party. It could be something simple, like a personal note or even an email.

Whatever method you choose, take time to express yourself to those who have swayed your life for the good. Be yourself, and let the grateful words flow.

If you do, be ready for showers of sentiment and fulfillment to overwhelm you. Wilma knows exactly what that is like.

K Hertzler Art

Artist and nature journalist in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

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