Like puzzles, cancer pictures get clearer as treatments go on

I enter the radiation waiting room inside the Mayo Clinic Specialty Building in Phoenix each morning and pause at a table. On the table is a jumbled jigsaw puzzle. The picture is incomplete.

Over the past two months on that table there have been winter scenes, desert nature portraits and tulip-festooned courtyards with titles such as “Folk Festival,” “Wildflower Valley” and “Seaside Inn.” One puzzle called “Esmeralda” depicted a turn-of-the-century carnival midway with curious customers gathered round a fortuneteller.

I decided it is my favorite. Around here, we are all in line to see Esmeralda and learn our fortunes.

We work on the puzzles for only a few minutes each morning, but day by day the pictures become clearer. Every few days, a puzzle gets completed. Then the scene changes once more.

In the waiting room, we do not discuss our medical maladies. If you weren’t being treated for cancer, you wouldn’t be sitting here. There are a few tired hellos and goodbyes, and an occasional wisecrack about our lack of puzzle-solving skills. There is civility, humanity and a lot of fatigued silences. Our minds are elsewhere as our hands move the pieces into place, but over time I come to realize that we rely on each other to complete the scene.

As I come to the end of my six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatment for throat cancer, I am again reminded of our collective efforts to piece together those puzzles that flash like memories in the scrapbook of a happy life. So, when people ask me about how my treatment is going, I want to tell them about the long process of completing those puzzles.

Cancer treatment is like that. With no easy answers and no shortage of setbacks, it’s easy to feel isolated and afraid. Despite a generation of breakthroughs, merely mention the word and conversations go quiet and the mood darkens.

In part that’s because cancer touches every family. The churchgoing and hard-living get it. The pure of heart and the reprobate have it in common. And just about all of us have members who have lost the battle of their lives.

Many times I have felt the presence of my late mother and father during meetings with doctors. It put me off at first, but I have come to be comforted by the sense that I am not alone in this fight. With my daughter Amelia a brain cancer survivor, I am reminded every day that life is worth the fight.

As I receive treatment, I take a moment to think of all the other Southern Nevada children touched by cancer. Their hard lives are made a little easier by local charities such as Candlelighters of Nevada, the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation, Make-A-Wish, the St. Baldrick’s Foundation and more. To see those families fight their good fight, often against daunting odds, is truly inspiring.

And I think about the growing community of cancer treatment in the valley. From the Nevada Cancer Institute to the Comprehensive Cancer Center, Southern Nevada’s reputation for boomtown medicine continues to improve each year. And there’s no shortage of need.

Cancer causes one in four deaths in the United States. In 2010, that was approximately 570,000 people.

With more than 1.5 million new cases diagnosed each year, and another 2 million or so skin cancer cases, there’s plenty of work to do. But there’s also a hopeful message amid all the grim statistics.

Mortality rates for many cancers have been in gradual decline since the mid-1970s, when about 50 percent of those diagnosed survived five years. Today, that figure is nearly 70 percent.

With early detection and treatment, and improved medical standards of care, the picture isn’t framed in a shroud.

As I travel this road and see the pieces of my own cancer picture take shape with the help of many hands, I am reminded once more that we are all in this together.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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