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3 February 2015 / erikduval

Cancer day…

Apparently, tomorrow is World Cancer Day

I’m not sure about this concept of having days for specific topics. I mean: is there a World Ebola Day? A World Political Prisoners Day? A Let’s-get-rid-of-religious-and-other-bigotry Day? There are only 365 days in a year and so many worthy causes…

Still, I was asked to reflect a bit on my experience over the last 10 months, and ended up thinking about how cancer is maybe a bit ‘different’ from other diseases…

First of all, being told you have cancer makes you think in a rather direct way about … dying. (I was told my cancer was ‘not a good one’ and that ‘maybe now would be a good moment to start writing my memoirs’.) Of course, unless we make some rapid and dramatic progress, most of you who read this will die eventually (see video below though). But most of us sort of ignore this most of the time, if not all of the time.

I had wondered before how I would cope if someone would tell me that I only had a small amount of time left. Maybe I would panic, or go mad, or become ultra-religious? Actually, it may sound bigger than it is, but, if anything, the last 10 months taught me that I can cope with dying. Not that I especially want to die. Certainly not any time soon. But I think it is possible to make reasoned decisions about what you want to still say to whom and what you still want to accomplish when you start running out of time. I was OK having that conversation with myself – and with a few others… In that sense, this was actually a Good Experience: it gives me peace of mind thinking that I will be able to cope if, or rather when that time comes.

BTW, thinking more about being mortal also made me very aware of how lucky I’ve been so far: I’m very fond of my family, I have a great job, I have no material worries, etc. I’m very privileged. (Chances are that you are very privileged too!)

Second, what is a bit weird about cancer, is that it is the therapy which makes you feel sick, not the disease. My lymphoma was discovered by accident. Besides some swellings in my neck, there was nothing I had noticed. Nothing that hurt. And then I started treatment, and that is when I started feeling really awful. There’s something that feels wrong about that experience: if you have a head ache and you take an aspirin, you feel better. With cancer, I felt fine, and then I started taking medicine, and then I felt really sick.

In general, the logic of cancer often escapes me: sometimes I would get really sick from chemo, sometimes not. I still can’t see a small bottle of water (like the one in the hospital) or smell soup, without feeling nauseous. Every morning around 10am, I get a bad taste in my mouth. Why 10 am?

Third, cancer apparently isn’t really a disease. It’s a family of diseases. I’m not a medical expert, but some cancers can be treated without too much effort and have a 100% survival rate, others never go away, but can be treated in a chronical way. Some require chemo, some radiation therapy, some surgery, some a combination of two or all three. Some are very common, some are very rare. (Yes, I almost felt a bit proud and ‘special’ that my type is a pretty rare one…)

That is why it was sometimes a bit silly when someone told me they knew someone who had had cancer and survived, so I would be OK too. I would look up the details of their specific kind of cancer and it would be an extremely benign one. “You call that cancer?”, a little voice inside of me would yell.

Fourth (and I will stop here, otherwise I will go on forever), cancer has its nice sides too. Not only is it a great excuse when you need one (“I’m sorry that I didn’t finish this in time, but I really suffered badly from chemo this last week.”), but also, it has made me so much more aware of the value of friendship and support.

Yes, people are sometimes a bit clumsy in how they express themselves. (“Don’t stop fighting!” What do you mean: all I do is sleep and feel miserable. That doesn’t feel like fighting. It feels more like … waiting for bad stuff to go away.) But still, I’ve been so terribly fortunate in receiving unexpected messages of support, sometimes from people that I don’t know all that well. Each of these messages gave me that little extra energy and hope, that “they haven’t completely forgotten about me” feeling that helped me get through the day.

I’ll certainly try to be more supportive to others too. When in doubt, do send that message of support. Don’t think too long about it. A simple “thinking of you” will do wonders. Well … maybe not wonders. I don’t believe in miracles. But it wil still be a Good Thing. Actually, that’s something you could do for World Cancer Day. Stop reading. Send someone that message that you think of them and wish them all the best! Even if that someone doesn’t have cancer. That’s fine too…



Leave a Comment
  1. tandjgordon / Feb 3 2015 4:30 pm

    Good on ye, Eric. Tak tent!

  2. lettergoesting / Feb 3 2015 5:33 pm

    Reblogged this on Lettergoesting and commented:
    without words

  3. David Maes / Feb 3 2015 6:14 pm

    Don’t stop waiting!

  4. Lieve Coninx / Feb 3 2015 7:36 pm

    Heavy… thank you for sharing these thoughts!


  5. lrenshaw11 / Feb 4 2015 9:44 am

    Great post. Everyone’s experience is unique. Keep posting and helping others reflect on life. Keep building towards s healthy future

  6. dougclow / Feb 4 2015 12:28 pm

    Still thinking of you!

  7. Marian / Feb 4 2015 1:48 pm

    Goeie, ik heb direkt een kaartje geschreven aan iemand in het buitenlandse die dat wel zou kunnen gebruiken. Dank voor je overpeinzingen.

  8. Geert Claeys / Feb 6 2015 12:26 pm

    Thinking of you and keep believing that future looks brighter than the past

  9. Odette / Feb 7 2015 9:54 am

    Thank you for giving words to my thoughts and feelings, I felt the same way.

  10. Pierre Gorissen / Feb 7 2015 7:48 pm

    All the best Erik!

  11. chemobrainn / Feb 7 2015 11:04 pm

    Hello Eric, hope you do well, I understood your therapy is finished, can imagine how you feel.
    I had my first Hodgkin lymphoma in 1987 and today I’m still fine. Since I am diagnosed with non-Hodgkin in 2010 I consider good quality of life as most valuable. I started to ask myself questions about cancer treatments and wrote down my experiences. More than 4 years of ‘extra time’ now and no lymph node bothering me. I would like to announce the good news that soon the days of suffering on cytotoxic agents are over but this might be too rash. Let’s say that there is blowing a wind of change in this world of cancer. 😉

    Take care and all the best.

  12. greg / Feb 20 2015 1:02 pm

    Hi Erik, nice piece of writing (this counts for the whole blog by the way). Even though I don’t think we’ve ever spoken, it felt good seeing you back at the department!

  13. mafrican / Aug 27 2015 5:03 am

    Having been through chemo and surgery and radiation, I really understand what you’re saying. Every little “like” on a Facebook post means something… I tend to get a bit impatient when people tell me how brave I am – the point is that I have no choice. You endure and try to get through it reasonably sane. Your body shocks you, because in your mind you feel strong, but when you try to walk the weakness overwhelms you. The treatment is utterly debilitating.

    I seem to be on the way to recovery now and hope I continue to feel well. Not sure I can go through this again, but it’s amazing how you do what you need to do, not because you’re brave or special, but because you have to. Because the human spirit wants to prevail. Anyway, I just want to tell you that your posts resonate with me. I am sending positive thoughts your way and thinking of you.


  1. Cancer day… | KU Leuven blogt

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