A Letter to My Two Favorite Oncologists

Dear Joanne and Mike —

We used to be so close, remember?  I used to drag in all the time, back in the long year of 1995-96, cracking bad jokes so it wouldn’t be obvious how terrified I was.  Remember the time I criticized your information sheet, Joanne, since it listed line-dancing as a hobby?  Aside from the questionable aesthetics of line-dancing, I recall telling you, I didn’t want an oncologist who had hobbies.  I wanted someone who spent every minute of her day coming up with a cure for cancer.

Yeah, I must have been a real riot as a cancer patient.

But 15 years have passed since then.  Owing to a combination of your good medical care, my good fortune to have medical insurance, and just plain, unvarnished good luck, I’m still alive.  I wanted to write you both with a list of what I’ve been able to do in the past 15 years — the Good, the Bad and the Priceless.

The Good

Writing two young-adult novels, one “adult” novel, reams of newspaper columns, magazine pieces and radio commentaries.

Traveling from Albania to Tokyo to the Prada Art Installation in Far West Texas.

Starting a bonfire in our side yard to welcome the new Millennium.  Having our neighbor call the fire department on us; having the fire department think it was funny.

Visiting Northern Ireland, which is now peaceful — and one of the few success stories about reconciliation in recent years.  Who would have thought we’d live long enough to stroll around tranquil streets in Belfast?

Listening to the Irish talk — even the directions they give you are poetic.

Seeing the University of Texas win a national championship in football.  (By the way, the Heisman should be given to Vince Young immediately.)

Watching Obama get elected, and singing and dancing with friends in the middle of our living room to celebrate.

The Bad

Suffering through eight years of the Bush administration.

Wondering whether social security is going to hold out.

Developing “sensitive” teeth.  Who knew this would be part of aging?

Feeling like I’m flunking the modern world since I can’t multitask worth a damn.

The Priceless

Seeing Venice for the first time with my husband.

Living in New York City for a year.

Watching both our kids graduate from middle school, high school and college.  Seeing one earn a master’s degree.  Having them both — hallelujah! — become self-supporting.

Becoming friends with my grown children.

Meeting other cancer survivors, many of whom became close friends.  Too many haven’t survived — and I often feel I’m trying to age as well as possible for all of us.

I’m sure there’s much more to add, things I’ve forgotten or have come to take for granted.  But I wanted to remind myself how lucky I’ve been and to thank you for what you’ve done for me.  You always treated me as a person — and not as a number or a case.  Best wishes to you both, Ruth

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite posts about reminding myself not to forget

16 comments… add one
  • Ruth,
    I lost my beloved husband of 25 years last week.  On the way to funeral home the thought came into my mind about how you called it the “House of Death” and I smiled.   I know you have given me more smiles to come – trying to deal with probate and Social Security, etc.  I love your humor.  I am sorry you lost your beloved Dad, but he made me smile.

  • Steve Link

    Having been diagnosed with lymphoma almost 55 years ago, and being free of prostate cancer for 10 years a week from Friday (but who’s counting?), I come to the conclusion that it is all good, albeit some  experiences moreso that others.   

    Tom Driver, one my favorite theologians (do other people have favorite theologians?) comes to the conclusion that all of human experience, the good and the bad, is the word of God for him.  He then asks himself, “Will I believe that when King Heroin eats my child?  I don’t know. Ask me then.  Ask the needle.”

    Despite my refined ability to descend in a dark and cynical place, usually with a healthy and dark humor, I still come to the conclusion that it is all good.

  • Cindy D. Link

    Glad to see you back with such a beautiful blog.  Thought we had lost you due to the frustration about the dog blog.  I have often laughed and cried with you when you “hung you heart out to dry” but didn’t realize that feedback would be so important to you.  I’m so awed by your talent that I’ve been reluctant to think there was anything relevant I could say.  Good to have you back and congratulations on the 15 years.  I’m 7 years out and that’s a good number too.

  • What a list you’ve compiled! Even though there are the bad things, as cancer survivors, I think we’ll take ’em all, don’t you?

  • I love this on its own, and because it gives me hope that I can one day write a letter like this one!

  • A great list for ANYONE in 15 years. So people seem to have nothing to show for life. You aren’t one of them.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Karen — I am so sorry about your husband’s death.

    Yes, Steve, you’re the only person I know who has a favorite theologian.

    And Cindy D., yes I do love feedback.  Thanks to you and everyone else for your comments.

  • Sensitive teeth?  Dang.  Every day I learn about new fun things to look forward to.  Not that I’m a spring chicken.  I just haven’t heard of that one yet.
    Ruth, despite all the ups and downs, I’d say you’ve done incredibly well.  We are so fortunate to have you here.  I can’t wait to read your book.  I read the description on Amazon, and it sounds awesome.  Goggling cracked me up.

  • P.S. – Thank you, Ruth, for giving me inspiration always.  And thank you, Steve, for your comment.  My husband had lymphoma.  I’ve been worried out of my mind about him lately, as a cough that won’t go away has returned.  It’s probably nothing, but I still worry.  When I saw the words “55 years ago,” it made me feel good.
    Sorry to hog the comments.  I just appreciate it a lot today.

  • So will next week’s post be what you expect to do in the next 15 years. I don’t like the term ‘bucket list’ but I’m curious.

  • You know, I’d never thought about how thankless the day to day is for an oncologist, but then THIS is why it’s all worth it. Not the during, but the after. And the thought that you’re doing something that is the most important thing in the world for each individual you’re working with.

  • My teeth are already sensitive. I’m not sure if I have any gums left, and it really irritates me because I’ve been flossing since age 20. I suppose I’d have no teeth left were it not for the flossing?

    I enjoyed this letter. All of these extra years these docs helped you find have been well worth it.

  • Lovely letter, Ruth. And you will send it, right? As the daughter and sister of two surgeons, I know that docs (despite their sometimes dubious bedside manner) really do appreciate such things.

    I love the way you catalog the high (and low) times during the past 15 years — and didn’t realize your kids were so young when you were diagnosed.

    Kudos to you, and other cancer survivors like you, who live each day with gratitude and intention.

  • I love this and I love your list, how it has the “all” of life, which is what makes it so real.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Yes, I sent the link to both oncologists, who replied immediately. I don’t have much of a bucket list, though.

  • I think it’s GOOD not to be able to multi-task worth a damn, darlin’. And I’ve had sensitive teeth my whole life. For some reason, this post made me cry. Okay, your posts always make me cry–either from laughing so hard or from being so moved. I think tomorrow I will write a letter to a special person in my life, inspired by you.

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