Howard Bressler

The Layman's Guide To Surviving Cancer



Still, the doctor said on initial review that my cell structure looked good, and I felt relatively confident that I would be okay. Later that afternoon, however, he called and spoke the following words: “I’m afraid the news is not good.” Now, when your regular doctor calls you and says something is not good, it could be anything: a bounced check; the insurance denied your request for plastic surgery; you’re really a woman. But when your oncologist calls you with that kind of news, things are bad.
Immediately, I was on my feet and pacing around my room while my wife watched and listened nervously. Leukemia. Acute promyelocytic leukemia (or APL for short). In an instant, everything I had come to expect was thrown into disarray. Everything that I thought was settled—my family life, my relationships, my job, my very meaning and place in this world—became suddenly unhinged. As if I was experiencing my own, personal earthquake, the ground under me unexpectedly had opened into a chasm and I felt myself thrust onto the ledge of a cliff that had risen up out of nowhere. Cancer. Me.  My God, what did it mean? Was this the early end whose prospect had nagged at some part of me for years? Was I going to die? Would I live long enough to see my daughters grow up? Would I live long enough for them even to be able to remember me?
It was like a tornado in my head for a few moments; a “deer in the headlights” experience. When my head cleared I asked my doctor simply, “Where do we go from here?”

Chapter 1

As hard as it may be, since you control what treatment you will undergo, you are the leader in your battle against cancer. You are essentially the commanding officer. That may be daunting, but recognizing and embracing that role can also be particularly empowering. Take charge. Call the shots. Just as the morale for an entire company of soldiers about to embark on a dangerous battle will be set by the attitude of its commanding officer, those around you, your friends and loved ones, will gauge the approaching battle through your demeanor. If you communicate to them that you are concerned but confident, they will be too. You are the leader, and how others follow depends on how well you lead. Indeed, that kind of proactivity can have a profound effect on your mood and, moreover, the mood of those around you and their ability to help you. As Dr. Gorter noted: “[A] sense of powerlessness can actually suppress your immune system. Research has shown that this can lower your defenses, which allows cancer cells to grow more rapidly.” As such, staying proactive and fostering the knowledge that you have within yourself the power to defeat your cancer—that you are far from powerless—is a crucial means of doing so. As Georg Groddeck wrote back in 1923: “One must not forget that recovery is brought about not by the physician, but by the sick man himself. He heals himself, by his own power, exactly as he walks by means of his own power, or eats, or thinks, breathes or sleeps.”

Chapter 6

Hearing that you will have to undergo chemotherapy can have daunting effects. Even people who have never dealt with it firsthand have some knowledge as to how onerous the treatments can be. They may have seen television shows or movies showing people undergoing chemotherapy. Perhaps they have had friends or relatives who have had to endure it. They know that it makes you lose your hair, feel nauseated and generally feel lousy. As a result, the prospect of going through chemotherapy can cause justified anxiety and stress. The reality that I would have to go through chemotherapy is something that caused me a great deal of concern. My first treatment was to take place a few days after I entered the hospital and, as the day I would begin treatment crept closer, my trepidation rose. I found it difficult to turn my thoughts away from what chemotherapy would be like. What would happen to me? Would the treatment make me violently ill? Would I be throwing up all day? Would I be able to eat at all? Would I lose all of my hair and, if so, how soon would that happen? How would I look bald and possibly emaciated from the side effects of chemotherapy?
Truthfully, chemotherapy is onerous. While you may be one of the lucky ones who sail through it with little or no ill effects, for many people it makes them wonder whether the treatment is worse than the disease. The thing that helped me get through the “downs” of chemotherapy was to take my eyes off the price and keep them on the prize. If, like me, you can keep in mind the many things you have to live for, and the ultimate goal of chemotherapy, you will see chemotherapy for what it is: a small investment for a large return.

Chapter 9

You have probably heard the old adage that “laughter is the best medicine.” Indeed, the belief that “a merry heart is like a good medicine” has been expressed for millennia. There are, in fact, studies that lend support to this long-held belief and the health-promoting effects of real, sincere laughter…
Additional studies conducted by Drs. Lee Berk and Stanley Tan of Loma Linda University Medical Center in California indicate that laughter, among other things: (i) helps relieve pain; (ii) improves mood; (iii) lowers blood pressure; (iii) reduces stress hormones; (iv) increases muscle relaxation; (v) decreases anxiety and fear; and (vi) boosts the immune system. They also have demonstrated that laughter raises the levels of infection-fighting T cells, disease-fighting proteins called gamma interferon and B cells, which produce disease-destroying antibodies. Our emotions, particularly positive emotions, also may affect our immune systems through the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which are injected into the bloodstream and act on white blood cells.


Chapter 17

Chinese philosopher and educator Kongfuzi said: “In the battle between the river and the rock, the river will always win. Not through strength, but through persistence.” Think about that. On the one hand, you have a hard stone; heavy, dense, seemingly unyielding and immovable. On the other hand, you have water: soft, malleable, constantly changing its shape to accommodate its constraints and surroundings. Yet, as Kongfuzi noted, the latter always prevails in the end over the former. Even if it is not immediately overwhelming, given enough time, persistence and force, sooner or later that water will wear away the much harder stone and create its own path. Water also is the ultimate adapter. In a square container water is square. In a round one it is round. It is for these reasons that famed martial artist Bruce Lee advised his students to be like water. Lee wanted his students to be able to adapt their fighting techniques to whatever situation they were in. You too may feel that you are too soft to overcome the stone-like obstacle that cancer appears to be. With sufficient persistence and adaptation to your situation, however, you can wear away that stone and ultimately overcome it and create your path to health.