What Cancer Takes From Us, What We Can Take From Cancer

By Gail Richman, Managing Director of Business Practices at the National Home Office
Jan 26, 2012 12:00 PM ET
Gail Richman on Mt. Kilimanjaro Climb

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Cancer is a taker. It can take away loved ones, limbs, money, hair, and other things that make us who we are. But I learned when I lost my mother, now more than 20 years ago, that cancer can also be a giver. It can give you courage, strength, friends. And I learned over the past few weeks that with enough support, cancer can propel you to the top of a mountain.   Just a few weeks ago I was honored to be a member of an expedition to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which was comprised of cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers, and led by longtime ACS volunteer Dr. Richard Deming. Having seen first-hand the experience of cancer patients while in treatment – whether during hospital stays or living with the sometimes relentless side effects of chemotherapy, surgery or radiation – I am in no position to compare the nine-day journey to the arduous task of responding to a cancer diagnosis. Yet, I cannot help but think that the depth of strength it took for some of my fellow climbers to dig in for another step was made possible by the test they had already been through.   As one of the survivors put it as we made our way to the top of Kilimanjaro, “I’m not a ‘survivor.’ That’s too passive. I’m a conqueror!”   I’ve been back in the warmth of my home, family life, and work life for a week since the Kilimanjaro trek. It was easy to fall back into the rhythm of daily life where I take for granted the ability to take a shower, change clothing, find fresh fruits and vegetables, and have access to safe drinking water. But lingering from the trip is the indelible impression of trust and caring and the kind of ‘survivorship’ that is manifested when we are far away from our established routines and creature comforts.   Just as each person in the group found the strength and encouragement to take a trip across the globe and climb the highest peak in Africa, every one of us was once where so many American Cancer Society volunteers and constituents are today: facing a daunting disease or anticipating difficult side effects from treatment, or caring for a loved one in those circumstances, and needing strength from wherever they can find it.   Not every person whose life is interrupted by cancer will ultimately climb a mountain, but it’s a comfort to me to know that so many will have the chance to try.    ACS20516