“My World In Pink Ribbons.”
That’s the title of a short essay written by a young lady at Bangor High School in this year’s Mosaic, an annual publication by the school’s creative writing class. In it she painfully describes the moment when her mother and father sat down with her and her younger brother in their living room to tell them that her mother had breast cancer.
“The tears still streamed down my face,” she wrote. “The thought of my mom with cancer kept them coming. Never in a million years did I ever think that something like this would happen to someone I love with all my heart.”
Informing those whom you love. That’s one of the steps that come with a cancer diagnosis. Losing your hair? Check. Weight loss? Perhaps. Weight gain? Perhaps. Scalding skin burns from radiation? Maybe. Nausea? Chances are good. Loss of ability to taste? It’s possible. Debilitating fatigue? Probably. Fear? Absolutely.
Maine has the highest rate of cancer in the nation, according to the U.S. Cancer Statistics Report, and our region of eastern and central Maine has the highest rate of cancer in the state.
There are 510.3 cases of diagnosed invasive cancer per 100,000 people in Maine. That is much higher than the national average of 459.9 cases per 100,000 people. Half of all men and one-third of all women will develop cancer in their lifetimes.
For the first time in history, cancer has become the leading cause of death in Maine, according the Maine Health Forum. Chances are everyone you meet or run into every day either has cancer, loves someone who has cancer, works with someone who has cancer, or is friends with someone who has cancer.
Somewhere there has to be hope. So this week I called an old friend of mine, well-known Bangor lawyer Julio DeSanctis.
When Julio’s doctors diagnosed his prostate cancer and told him that it had metastasized into his bones and involved an inoperable tumor on T-8 in his spine, he said in true Julio DeSanctis fashion, “Well, butter me up. I’m toast.”
Julio called me the day he was diagnosed. By chance, I was working on a front-page profile of the colorful lawyer’s life and career as he planned a move to his home state of New Jersey.
“Renee,” he said gruffly and matter-of-factly on the phone. “I’m up at Eastern Maine and the doctors just told me I’ve got cancer and it’s into my spine. We might want to think about hurrying things up if you want to finish up your story.”
We did finish that story and had a heck of a lot of fun doing it. One evening I was welcomed into the circle of a close group of friends who sat by Julio’s makeshift hospital bed set up in the basement of his home. It was a night of nothing but stories and laughter.
That was seven years ago.
On Sunday, June 7, Julio will be a featured speaker at a gathering of cancer survivors at the Bangor Waterfront. The event is free and starts at 2 p.m. It will honor survivors — and you are a survivor if you’ve ever heard the words, “You have cancer.” Friends and family of survivors are also welcome. Sunday is National Cancer Survivors Day all across the nation.
This week as I was catching up with Julio and we were hashing over his health and the stunning cancer statistics for this state, he casually mentioned, “Yeah, by the way, Joan [his wife] is having a biopsy as we speak.” Seems a mammogram had indicated a small mass.
On Friday I called him back to inquire about Joan’s health. Though official test results are not back yet, Julio said those who looked at the labs thought things looked “good.”
In recent years, CancerCare of Maine has outgrown its home on the Eastern Maine Medical Center campus. CancerCare of Maine treats about 7,000 patients a year, and since 1998, new cancer patients seeking treatment at CancerCare of Maine have increased by 75 percent.
That’s about 1,500 residents from Aroostook County, 807 from Piscataquis County, 1,741 from Washington County, 7,216 from Penobscot County, 2,557 from Hancock County, and 959 residents from Waldo County.
A new CancerCare building is under construction in Brewer that will allow for more space, more dignity and more comfort for cancer patients. Perhaps most importantly, the Brewer facility will include an entire floor dedicated to the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health, a cancer research group that is a collaborative organization of EMMC, the University of Maine and The Jackson Laboratory.
If we truly are among the most at-risk population in the country, then it seems only right that we should receive the most comforting and up-to-date treatment.
The young woman who wrote that essay? Well, I ran into her mom last weekend at a baseball game. She was moving out of the sun because of the pain it caused to the burns up and down her chest and arms from her radiation treatment.
We talked and laughed and she simply moved into the shade and continued to enjoy the game.