Opinion

OPINION | WOODY BASSETT: United by the fight against cancer, survivors and their families exhibit grace, gratitude

Battling cancer provokes kindness, empathy

I'm not a cancer patient, but my wife is. In 2019, Sheri was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, necessitating surgery followed by two months of proton radiation therapy, all at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.

During my wife's cancer journey the past four years, I've learned that even a spouse of a cancer patient can't know what it actually feels like to have cancer. Only those with cancer can truly know.

I've also learned firsthand a cancer center is many things but at its core it's a place of hope, a chance for people to beat cancer or at least manage it as well as possible.

I've spent countless hours walking the corridors of MD Anderson and sitting in its numerous waiting rooms, either with my wife at my side or alone while I waited for her. Being in a large cancer center is a sobering experience, a stark reminder that life is often unfair. Seeing so many people in one place who are afflicted with cancer prompts me to ask myself unanswerable questions: "Why them and not me? Why my wife and not me? Why a young person instead of someone 72 years old, like me? Why do bad things happen to good people?"

In the packed waiting rooms at MD Anderson, I find myself surrounded by strangers and by cancer. Most of the people sitting around me either have cancer, think they have cancer and are being tested to find out, or had cancer in the past and are there for a scheduled checkup to make sure they are still cancer-free. No one wants to be here, but every person in the room needs to be here.

A full range of emotions flows through the waiting room. It's all so real. Everyone copes with their circumstances in their own way. Some laugh, smile or strike up a conversation with a stranger. Others sit quietly, alone in their thoughts. Many look at their cell phones, wishing to momentarily transport their attention and thoughts to another place. One senses the palpable anxiety coursing through the room as patients await the results of their cancer scans and what comes next. Some surely say a silent prayer.

At MD Anderson and other cancer centers, shared concerns turn into acts of kindness, empathy and courtesy among those who are there. The human spirit is on full display. Hope is the common denominator in the building because in life's darkest and most challenging times, it's hope that sustains people.

A cancer patient described her thoughts on the waiting room this way: "I watch the couples that are holding hands looking scared, and the young man who is wearing a mask, or the son pushing his mother in a wheelchair who is wearing a beautiful scarf to cover her head. When I think about their stories, I always wonder what brought them to this waiting room. It's a very emotional experience for me. I feel a connection to this group of people, differently than I do anywhere else. I always hope the news is good for every single one of them. I hope that if they are going through treatment, they are almost done and will soon get back to routine visits and everyday life. I hope the couple that sits there scared gets really good news and goes home to celebrate. I always sit there thinking that none of us chose to be in the "cancer world" but here we are ... sitting next to each other ... waiting."

Another courageous cancer patient wrote: "As I sit amongst a sea of people, I feel I'm there with a room full of soldiers. I sense a camaraderie with everyone here. All have fought or are in a fight against a common enemy -- cancer. Some of us bear the scars of this terrible disease while others are just beginning the fight. There are young and old, men and women and transgender. There are gay and straight, Republicans and Democrats, all races and religions and all socio-economic groups. We are all on the same battlefield here ... So I say a prayer for all, that they have the strength to fight the battle of their life and win."

My wife has fought the battle and is winning. We were back in Houston last week for her most recent checkup at MD Anderson. Thanks to skilled oncologists and the marvels of modern medicine, Christmas came early for us this year because the scans and other tests confirmed there's no recurrence of cancer, no evidence of disease. As it stands today, Sheri is cancer-free.

All cancer patients have their own unique and personal story to tell. In almost every one of those stories you will hear the patient express heartfelt gratitude to family and friends for their support and prayers. It sure has made a meaningful difference for Sheri and me. We are profoundly grateful to all.

To those suffering from cancer or some other life-threatening disease, my wife and I send our prayers and best wishes to you. Keep fighting the good fight. Stay the course. Keep the faith.

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