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Choose Happiness: Unexpected Lessons from Living with Head and Neck Cancer

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Head and Neck Cancer

Joan and John skiing
John Grace and Joan Raducha, pictured left, reflect on how John's cancer diagnosis affected their lives.
 
Living with cancer has taught us a lot over the last three and half years, but the best lesson has led us to choose happiness. This might seem counterintuitive – how can a major illness that threatens your life and deprives you of your livelihood lead you to choose happiness? But if you are reading this and have had cancer (or any life threatening illness) in your life, you probably understand how cancer teaches this lesson.

We could remember the spring of 2006 as the time when a second tumor area showed up despite aggressive treatment.
 
Or we could remember that spring as the time when we were home together a lot and watched a pair of robins build a nest in a tree just outside our window.
 
We noted when the eggs appeared, watched as the papa bird brought food to the mama bird who sat and warmed the eggs, and then saw the hatchlings emerge, watched as the parents brought food to them in the nest and then one day, saw one of the young birds hop to the side of the nest, then onto a branch and then fly away. Wow – how could this not be happiness?
 
Cancer Grabs Hold of Life

Cancer is a nasty business – it grabs hold not just of a part of a body but of a life, a life of the individual and their family.
 
One day, Joan was off at a professional conference in Seattle, and John was working at the height of his career advocating for child and family services. We'll never forget the phone call – John making it, scared and in shock, or Joan receiving it, standing at a window in a hotel looking out and thinking – a walnut sized tumor on his tongue – where did this come from? Joan's family health history had its share of problems but John was always the healthy one.

For about a year prior to that day, John had a prickly feeling in the neck that progressed to difficulty swallowing. But the specialist to whom he was referred, and saw more than once over the year, repeatedly missed the warning signs. (We subsequently discovered that the specialist was in fact not board certified in the field – another lesson cancer has taught us: be your own advocate and check the credentials of the treating physician, even when you are treated in an excellent medical system).

So after a year of symptoms, John woke up one day and was slurring his speech – and then the downward spiral began of diagnosis with base of tongue cancer (who ever heard of this if you were a non-smoker, or even if you were?), a prognosis of a 65 percent chance of cure, emergency surgery with a bleeding tumor, treatments that themselves had life threatening and certainly life altering side effects, and then the bad news – the treatment didn't work.
 
Second opinions supported the dire prognosis we had received. Things became worse before better – a week in intensive care with life threatening pneumonia, months without being able to eat or drink, and then the harsh realization that John would never be able to simply swallow liquids again without practicing a special way of swallowing. We learned that his epiglottis had stiffened in treatment and would never again close properly on its own.
 
And the cancer cells didn't seem to want to go away.
 
Discovering Happiness

But along the way, we discovered a lot of things that taught us about happiness. Our commitment to each other became even stronger. E
 
ven on the worst days, we committed to doing one thing that was fun – a short walk, a new book, figuring out how to use the speaker phone so John could listen in on phone calls when it was too painful for him to talk.
 
We comforted each other when those overwhelming days occurred. We realized we were confronting a life and death situation, and we sought support through family, friends, and inspirational readings. A group of John's colleagues from across the country gathered at our house for a weekend when things looked particularly dire - an unprecedented event.
 
Our family and friends created a circle of support and "'gathered" across the country at a specified time each evening to send good energy towards John's well-being. So many nights we felt embraced rather than isolated and alone.
 
Choosing Happiness

We celebrated small advances in health improvement, and we thought of ways to surprise each other.
 
John secretly located the artist who had made our wedding rings 32 plus years ago. It was during a period when he couldn't drive, or often think clearly, due to the affects of the chemotherapy and medications. Several times when our children would visit, and I was at work or running an errand, he would ask them to drive him to the studio of the jeweler who John commissioned to create a pendant using design elements from our rings.
 
This is not to say that happiness is about a thing, an object, or a piece of jewelry. It is about the realization that my life partner pulled together all his energy, stretching what was in reserve, to develop a plan that would make me happy.

We learned to see the glass half full rather than half empty – in other words, we chose happiness.
 
We marveled at the beauty of spring as the first leaves emerged and were happy beyond belief when John was still alive to see the leaves turn in the fall.
 
We celebrated the steps back to our "new normal" when food could be swallowed, tastes re-emerged, rather than bemoaning the free and easy lifestyle that was lost forever.
 
During the years when John couldn't swallow easily, we wrote notes about memories as well as dreams for the future and tucked them into the pockets of our "24 days until Christmas" wall hanging calendar instead of stuffing the pockets with candy.
 
We appreciated a new medicine tested at the UW Carbone Cancer Center that kept tumor growth at bay and accepted the fact that it wasn't a cure.
John Raducha at his daughter's wedding

John dancing with his daughter


We focused on our good fortune - children who made Madison a regular destination even though they were engaged in budding relationships, professional work, and graduate study in other parts of the country.
 
When John danced a rumba with our daughter at her wedding last September – four months after surgery for a new tumor – our hearts knew happiness beyond description. And the news of our son and daughter-in-law expecting our first grandchild this spring – pure happiness.

Choosing happiness is hard work – John had to leave a job he truly loved. It wasn't a job but a committed career. However, the severity of his illness and the ongoing treatments simply didn't allow him to meet the regular demands of work.
 
But he did learn to find happiness helping with a transition for his organization and then doing volunteer work where he could apply his skills to worthwhile endeavors as his energy permitted.
 
Dancing in the Rain and the Sunshine

To be honest, while we are happy that John's cancer has become a chronic rather than immediately fatal illness, living with a chronic illness is not always happy or easy.
 
The illness sets certain limitations around our lives, around our choices of what we can and can't do; bi-weekly treatments alone will do this. The awareness of health is always near the surface; we are always a little on guard. However, over time, side effects that could seem assaultive have become petty annoyances, attended to, but not a dominant factor in our lives.
 
John has always been an optimist, but watching him dealing with all these medical issues, I've developed an image of him as a man who can dance in the rain as well as the sunshine. And we both are grateful that together, we can be resilient and find joy in our lives together.

We've been fortunate to have physicians, nurses, swallowing specialists, pharmacists, reception and other staff who care for medical needs but also attend to quality of life issues.
 
Over the last four years, these professionals have shared this illness experience with us – revealing bits of their lives too, helping us to realize we are in this together. They have become a community for us, careful not to intrude, while revealing their humanity and their own joys and sorrows so we recognize it isn't a world of "us" and "them."
 
Maybe we wish we didn't have to know them at all, that is, that illness wasn't part of our lives. But the illness is. So, how could we not be happy to know we have great medical care from people we have come to look forward to seeing? They share our experience, our sorrows and our happiness. Bad test results are dealt with solemnly, with expressions of concern, followed with well thought through options. Good results are delivered with a genuine smile and a sense of celebration.

We are grateful for the research and public education being done at the UW-Madison to prevent, lead to earlier detection of, and treat this disease. In fact, we've joined with other patients, caregivers, and supporters to build a network to raise awareness of and funds for these efforts.

We wouldn't have chosen to have cancer enter our lives, but we are grateful, yes grateful, for the lesson it taught us about using our strength to choose happiness.