The Big "C": Cancer

I remember when I had a biopsy done on a mole. Two days later I answered the phone and the nurse said, “The doctor wants to speak to you.” Alarm bells went off in my head. Hey, I was just expecting one of those postcards saying your tests came back negative, not a personal call. “Linda, there's good news and bad news.” Never a good opening. I went for the bad news first. “Linda, you have malignant melanoma, and it spreads very fast. You need to see an internist right away to see if it has. I also want you to see a plastic surgeon for a wide excision of your back.” It's amazing how you process this type of information. It really feels like hearing a verdict—only you missed the trial. It's also like an out-of-body experience. We went on to the good news: The cancer was a Stage II, meaning it hadn't progressed very far. He felt we had caught it in time. I had the surgery and a battery of tests; five years later I'm in the clear.

Your Parent's View

I share this with you because, although we all dread cancer, it's estimated that 40 percent of the adults diagnosed with cancer do survive. Every year, as a result of aggressive cancer research, new methods to stave off the progression of cancer are being discovered. Your parents, however, come from a generation where cancer wasn't talked about. They might have felt ashamed if their parents had it so they didn't tell their friends. It was common for families to engage in a conspiracy of silence, believing it was in the cancer victim's best interest not to know he or she had cancer.


Before I'm accused of presenting too rosy a picture, check out these statistics from the American Cancer Society:

  • Cancer is the second leading cause of death in this country, exceeded only by heart disease.
  • Every day, 1,500 people die of cancer. Every year, a million new cases of cancer are diagnosed.
  • In the last 10 years, 5 million people lost their lives to cancer.
  • Among the elderly, the top four cancers are lung, breast, prostate, and colon.

Times have changed dramatically; however, your mom and dad's views might still be back in the 1950s. They might not tell you or their doctor that they have symptoms for fear of finding out that they have cancer. Just as it seemed as if I was given a verdict, they think that it's a death sentence, given what they saw when they were young adults. They're trapped thinking, “There's nothing that can be done anyway, so why bother? Better not to know.” The message for you? Probe for symptoms, and encourage—if not take—your mom and dad to get regular checkups that screen for cancer. You also can reassure them that plenty of cancers can be stopped dead in their tracks—if you act in time. They also need to know that the therapies used today to treat cancer are far more advanced than the horror stories they might have heard or saw when they were younger. I recall how shocked I was when a colleague of mine came to work in the afternoon following his morning of chemotherapy. I, too, was back in the dark ages remembering how deathly ill my grandfather was after his chemotherapy. Your parents need to know how much times have changed!

What Is Cancer?

Cancer is basically cells gone haywire. We have zillions of cells that grow and reproduce everyday. Cells get their orders on how to reproduce through the cell's DNA— kind of like a company's CEO. If cancer-causing substances like tobacco, alcohol, or some other toxins get to the CEO, his or her orders get hijacked. The message is mutilated and the cells that get this errant message start reproducing themselves. They aren't very popular with their co-workers (normal cells), so they take the hint and break away. They happily keep reproducing their mutated selves, and before you know it they've created their own spin-off company, what we call a tumor. Some of these tumors are satisfied just hanging out with themselves so they stay benign and harmless. But there are others that are very ambitious and they want to penetrate the market everywhere they can. These are the malignant guys. Their goal is to tear down their competition—their normal-cell neighbors—and take over your whole body. And that's a deadly scenario.

More on: Aging Parents


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Caring for Aging Parents © 2001 by Linda Colvin Rhodes, Ed.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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