Saturday, November 20, 2010

CAUSE Because

Because only one percent of our nation actually serves in the military. The rest don’t know the country is at war. They don’t have to quit their jobs to take care of their brothers or sons who return as amputees or can’t hold down a job because they suffer from PTS - post-traumatic stress. They don’t have to endure the rage that comes from self-medicating so that you can sleep. The caregivers of our Wounded Warriors are showing some of their own war wounds, but nobody wants to talk about that...

Last year the CAUSE (Comfort for America’s Uniformed Service) gala was the first public outing for me after I started chemo. It is a night I will never forget and I must say I was a little shaken as Veterans’ Day rolled around, each milestone in the series of one year anniversaries that will make up this year as I float away from my cancer diagnosis and treatment is as monumental as the year before. It is a different kind of pain and healing. It’s where you heal the hidden wounds those that aren’t as obvious as your mastectomy scars or a bald head and lack of eyebrows. The war is over. You can resume your normal life, but you are changed. Oh how cancer patients resemble our Wounded Warriors. The PTS syndrome is exactly the same. We are a little distant. We can’t sleep because the anxiety of the memories of the fight and fear that the cancer will return is so palpable. If we slow down enough to really think about it the fear is crippling so we don’t. We start looking for more adrenalin. We start living life faster and faster - at least that is what the control freaks among us attempt. Others sink into a depression. Everything is an anniversary. One year since the first chemo, one year from the surgery, one year from shaving your head, the first Thanksgiving. The first Christmas. They are all firsts in that first year - something to be endured and gotten through.

If the year of treatment for breast cancer is a marathon to be endured, the year after is a sprint taking you far away from the diagnosis. And for Triple Negative patients like myself, the first 3 years are the most dangerous in terms of recurrence. We spent all of the last year embracing the reality of the diagnosis, not shying away from any of it. Then suddenly you are pronounced done - you are free to leave. You are no longer a prisoner of hospitals and doctors appointments, and suddenly all you want to do is forget, otherwise the fear of recurrence will overwhelm you.

Suddenly, with a snap of the fingers you are supposed to reintegrate as if you aren’t a totally changed person, much the same as the Wounded Warrior is supposed to come home, forget the war and go to the grocery store. You are among the lucky ones, you survived. But you know a lot who didn’t and that knowledge will be with you as you try to get back to your daily life, your daily routine. It is your new reality.

It was very important for me to stand up in front of the military crowd and again emcee the CAUSE gala. This year we raised 700,000 dollars for Wounded Warriors up from 200,000 dollars last year. CAUSE provides video libraries and massage therapy and outreach to the returning wounded at Walter Reed and 7 other Army Medical facilities. It is an invaluable service that fills a need in these hospitals helping to pull the wounded vet back from the brink as they heal. It was important for me to stand up one year later to prove to myself that indeed I went to war. I received a few scars that will always be with me but I survived. I lived to fight another day.

I didn’t find the words this year to really explain all of the similarities between Wounded Warriors and cancer survivors. I’ll try again next year. But most of those present knew that my heart was in the right place even if I didn’t speak clearly or eloquently enough to do that crowd justice. At my table that night was Leslie Cnossen whose brother Lt. Dan Cnossen is the Navy SEAL who lost both his legs in Afghanistan a year ago and became a battle buddy of mine in spirit as we both fought to keep our dignity through our treatment and recovery. Dan didn’t come, which is probably a good thing. He was out with some SEAL friends who had come to town, which shows how he is getting his life back together and doesn’t need to be a poster child for Wounded Vets at well-meaning galas. Leslie brought the sister of Lt Brendan Looney, another SEAL who wasn’t so lucky. He died in a Blackhawk crash 7 weeks ago in Afghanistan. An unspeakable tragedy for him and his family. He was a golden boy, a star athlete from DeMatha. His kid sister had tears in her eyes the whole night. She sat across from Marine General Joe Dunford and his wife Ellyn who had just returned from Dover where they met General John Kelly’s son Robert, who had come home that morning - Veterans Day - to Arlington National Cemetary.

I was thinking about General Kelly who I knew from Anbar and Joao Silva, the New York Times prize winning photographer and old friend, who was now lying in a hospital bed at Walter Reed. He stepped on a land mine and has now joined the 120 plus double amputees that this war has now produced. Greg and I have known Joao since our days in South Africa. I told Joao in an e-mail after he arrived at Walter Reed that Lt Dan Cnossen has just run his first marathon on his new prosthetics and I have no doubt that Joao will be the first double amputee to win a Pulitzer from a war zone. But in the meantime please pray for these heroes.