The Journal of The DuPage County Bar Association

Back Issues > Vol. 11 (1998-99)

Why I’m Glad I Had Cancer
By Steven L. Harmon, President
Riverside County, California, Bar Association

Editor’s Note: The following article was submitted by DCBA member Brian Diamond. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.

About five years ago I was diagnosed with large cell lymphoma, non-Hodgkin type. I couldn’t believe it when the doctor sat my wife and me down and started talking in hushed tones about "malignancy," "cancer" "chemotherapy," and "the odds." I couldn’t believe it. I was just 42 years old, didn’t smoke or drink, and was in good shape playing racquetball three times a week. My law practice was going well, my son was in private boarding school and loved it, and life was good. It couldn’t be cancer. Not me. Not now. Not ever.

But, it was true. I did have cancer and in two days I had to begin a rigorous chemotherapy program followed by weeks of radiation. I was barely able to keep myself from fainting as the doctor began warning us of what the chemotherapy would do to my body: I would lose all of my hair within three weeks; I would have sores in my mouth so severe I would not be able to eat; I would be violently ill following each treatment; I would have absolutely no appetite for anything; I would be lucky to lose only thirty pounds; my immune system would be almost entirely stripped away; I would be constantly in and out of the hospital; I would linger near death for weeks and sometimes welcome it. And after all that, there are no guarantees whatsoever it would work.

As I sat in that hospital room that day I thought I had been forsaken by God and my life was over. I was being robbed of everything I had worked so hard to achieve. My career, my family, and my life were about to be destroyed.

Well, everything the doctor promised me came true–and more. My battle with cancer was absolutely and unbelievably horrible. I cannot even attempt to describe the difficulties and anguish the disease and the cure brought me and everyone around me.

But, now let me tell you why I’m glad I had cancer.

I am now a survivor. I’ve come through hell and there’s not a lot left any more that’s going to shock me or get me down. How could there be? I’ve stood on the edge and looked down. I’ve seen what’s down there. I’m now a member of a select group of people who have won. I’m special. I’ve been tested and I’m still here to tell about it. I have a strength I’ve never came close to having before. To know I’ve survived has given to me a power few will ever experience. So, I’m going to use this power–and I do. Whenever I face a tough challenge, such as a closing argument in a difficult case, or speaking to a large group, or difficult business problems, or painful personal problems I immediately go back to my cancer and draw upon it for the strength I need to get through this problem. I remember those long nights in the hospital during chemotherapy and I ask myself which is easier-that or this? It’s amazing how everything pales in comparison to cancer. Perspective is gained and strength follows. My cancer has become my greatest source of strength.

Out of a disaster and despair can come strength and good. I’m proof that the struggle is worth it. Great quality of life awaits us beyond, no matter what disasters we may face. Mine was cancer. It could have been alcohol, drugs, a number of other addictions, divorce, business collapse, death of a loved one. But whatever it is that takes us to the edge and makes us look down, can also be our source of strength. If you get through this, you can get through anything.

I’m also glad I had cancer because it taught me that I had really not understood what was truly important in my life. I think I had gotten things backward. Before my illness my practice had become the focal point of my life. My family and friends had been relegated to a supporting role to my practice. However, I can tell you that when you are told you have cancer your first instinct is not to reach out to your calendar or case file or law book or a client. You first grasp your wife, your children, your mother and father, and your friends. I learned they were what is important in my life. Even though we are hired as professionals and owe the highest duty of service to our clients, we must never forget that our practices are only our way of sustaining our families. It is our way of carving out the best life we can for them. Our practices are the vehicles for providing our loved ones with the best possible life. It is truly important to serve our clients well and to be of service to our communities, but that is a hollow attainment if we fail our own families.

So cancer taught me to flip things around. Instead of thinking of my family supporting me to enhance my practice, I now think of my practice to enhance my family. It feels better this way.

Cancer has helped me understand my clients better. You see, I am to them what my doctor was to me. I needed my doctor even when he knew I really didn’t need him. I needed his gentle touch, his kind encouragement, his return call, his attention to only me. The smallest kindness from him meant so much to me and my family. His patience with my impatience was so appreciated. If he could do that for me, then why can’t I do that for my clients? They are in a time of need and crisis just as I was, so let me try to give them what they need. Cancer reminded me of this, and, believe me, I needed the reminder.

Cancer strips you of your dignity. It took mine away from me. I learned what it felt like to be down. I also learned that people react to those who are down in different ways. Take it from me, when your dignity is gone, it’s a horrible feeling. Some people make it worse, some make it better. When I had no hair, some people would look at my bald head when they met me, while some people looked me in the eye. What a different feeling I felt about myself by the way people reacted to and treated me. It was a good lesson for me to learn–when someone is down and their dignity is lost it’s usually only temporary, so treat them with dignity nonetheless and look them right in the eyes.

I am glad I had cancer because it has taught me so much. I believe I’m a better and stronger person because of my ordeal. However, you know I don’t wish cancer for anyone. I am only using it, and my experience with it, to say the struggle is worth it. We all have our own cancers; but as painful as they are, we can actually become stronger from them. As Jim Valvano, former basketball coach at North Carolina State, who several years ago lost his battle with cancer, said: "Never give up, never give up."

One final thing cancer taught me. It taught me to smile. I remember one time being at the hospital receiving a chemotherapy treatment, and I was very discouraged. I was completely bald, skin and bones, and always sick. I thought I had hit bottom and was feeling very sorry for myself, and with good reason. Just then I saw a young girl, perhaps nine or ten years old, being wheeled past my room in a wheelchair. She, too, was skin and bones. She, too, had no hair. But, she also had no legs. Moreover, she had something I didn’t have. She had a smile on her face. I quickly decided I could smile too.

I’ll never forget that little girl and her smile in spite of her unfortunate circumstances. I never learned what happened to her, although I have my suspicions she was not as fortunate as was I. Cancer, or should I say, her cancer taught me a lesson. The way I figure it, if she can no longer smile, then I’ll smile for her.

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