When my friend Mike called to tell me he had cancer I recall thinking to myself, “I know I’m talking to Mike, but the person I’m talking to doesn’t sound at all like Mike.”
Mike is a martial arts instructor, he rides a Harley, he’s a physically imposing jokester who can get proper people to laugh at improper humor.
The tumor in his neck, he told me, was cancer. The next step was to hit it with everything: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and Home Care Assistance from now on. His oncologists were clear, even if he survived all this, the treatments would ravage his body. He was going all-in and it could likely kill him. Next he wanted to talk about his will. No jokes. No crass remarks. Just the business of dying.
I believe in the miracle of modern medicine to cure, to treat, and to heal. But I also believe that medicine can’t do it all. It is up to each and every one of us to take our healing into our own hands. Mike’s journey is why I believe attitude plays a remarkable, yet to be understood role in our healing process.
After his surgery, Mike began sending out emails to his friends and family. They read like Dave Barry on cancer (An awful thought I know. Stay healthy Dave!) More importantly, they sounded like Mike. Reading these updates, I knew Mike had passed through the darkest if not the most difficult part of his journey. He was back. He wrote us about saying good riddance to Timmy the Tumor, flirting with Dr. T the Hottie, radioactive piss, vomiting in the kitchen sink and losing weight equal to that of a crack whore. I warned you he was crass. But he was also raw and honest.
His humor in the midst of a heavy situation made him an unforgettable patient for the doctors, staff and fellow patients. It carried him through months of pain and suffering.
Though he lives with some permanent physical damage, Mike is now cancer-free. He continues to teach martial arts, which he says helps with recovery. He still rides his Harley, and of course, he jokes with everyone about everything.
Mike’s cancer story, and the way he told it, made its mark. His oncologist still asks him to speak with other patients, to help prepare them for their difficult journey ahead. He uses his storytelling to kindle hope when all else seems hopeless.
Mike’s journey is a testament to the healing potential of good storytelling. In healthcare, we can’t afford to overlook its importance as patients, doctors and administration wrestle with the messy complexities of disease and treatment and of life and death.