By Alanna Kennedy
A pastor reflects on remission and recurrence
By Alanna Kennedy
Carl Wilton, 50, of Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., was first diagnosed with stage III non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December 2005. After his treatment, Wilton’s doctors told him he was in remission, but recent follow-up tests have suggested that the cancer might be back. A pastor at a Presbyterian church in New Jersey, Wilton began a blog to keep his congregation up-to-date on his treatment. But, he says, writing has also been cathartic.
“It helps me get in tune with how I’m thinking and feeling,” says Wilton. “I found it especially helpful as I was going through chemotherapy and had to step back from my duties at the church. Blogging … let me feel that the cancer hadn’t completely gotten me down.”
In an excerpt from a June 7 entry titled “Whack-a-Mole,” Wilton talks about dealing with a possible recurrence:
How long have I had this cancer, anyway?
That’s a question that’s been on my mind, lately—not only as I’ve thought back to my initial diagnosis, but especially now, in this awkward, transitional time of wondering whether or not I’m having a recurrence. …
How do all those cancer cells accumulate? They do it by doubling, as each cancer cell splits, creating two new cells. To get to that small-marble size, [hematologist-oncologist] Dr. Esler estimates, a tumor may well have gone through 30 doublings: a process that—depending on the type of cancer—could take 5 years or more. …
I don’t know how long it takes lymphoma cells to grow, but if that five-year figure is at all accurate, my cancer could have taken a very long time indeed to reveal itself. When my largish abdominal tumor—between the size of a baseball and a grapefruit—first showed up on an ultrasound in the fall of 2005, it could have been growing inside me since well before the turn of the millennium. …
The hard truth is, lots of cancer survivors are walking around saying, “My cancer is gone,” when, on the microscopic level, it’s not. Years (or even decades) later, after the doubling process has done its work, and cancer rears its ugly head on a scan, they commiserate, saying, “My cancer came back” when, in fact, it never left. It just went underground. “Cure” is an elusive concept, when the terrain investigators have to scour is so unimaginably vast.
In one of the Indiana Jones movies, the swashbuckling archaeologist fights his way into the inner sanctum of an ancient middle-eastern church, where a wizened old knight is guarding the Holy Grail (the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper). This pious Crusader has survived, all those centuries, because he’s been imbibing regularly from the Grail. His time frame is no longer the same as that of ordinary mortals. He’s been wetting his whistle with tincture of eternity.
Maybe the ancient knight is a model for long-term cancer patients. He’s sort of like the old yogi who’s learned through meditation to slow down his breathing and heart rate, entering a state resembling suspended animation. In living with cancer, it’s not the quick, frenetic whack-a-mole response that makes the difference. Slow and steady wins the cancer race.
To read more of A Pastor’s Cancer Diary, go to
To recommend a blog for CR’s Cancerblog column, send an e-mail to Kennedy@CRmagazine.org.