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Now we board the cancer train, with our destination unknown

My wife recently was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and now we’re riding the cancer train. With a cancer diagnosis, all reluctantly climb aboard for a trip into the unknown.

The goal of travelers on this train is not to remain on board until the end of the line but to reach Remission, a popular resort destination somewhere down the line.

Ticket holders remain on the train while family and supporters get off and on at random stops along the way. It is often hard to distinguish the ticket holders from the other passengers but sometimes assorted scarves, baseball caps, wigs, and bald heads give them away.

The train is a hybrid, powered by chemo and radiation as it wends its way around, over, and under the curves, bridges, and tunnels along the track. One can almost sense a quiet bond between the ticket holders; while the disease has many variations, they are linked by an awareness of their own mortality.

Illusions are few. Things that were important before diagnosis now diminish as things of real value, like family, friends, faith, hope, compassion, and understanding take their rightful place.

The caregivers who staff the train understand the importance of what they do. In a world that glorifies self-indulgence and the accumulation of stuff, they provide examples of devotion, compassion, patience, and understanding – all components of love, the paramount virtue.

Suffering can be a gift that provides insight to the misguided, balance to the unstable, humility to the self sufficient, and substance to the superficial. An awareness of one’s own vulnerability, and of the futility of what was once considered important, presents an opportunity for spiritual enlightenment.

We are all bound to die, yet we spend most of our lives ignoring that reality and trying to lose ourselves in the now-abundant frivolous distractions that keep us from having to confront what is truly important. Like a surgeon’s scalpel, cancer cuts through life’s surface to reveal the complex inner workings of heart and soul and, to those so inclined, asks the question: What is the source and purpose of our being?

Consumed by nonsense and enthralled by science and technology as the new pathways to happiness, we find it easy to ignore the mystery of existence. Science may one day be able to explain what we are; but will it ever be able to tell us why we are?

The cancer train rattles its way through shock, fear, and treatment to the brighter uplands of recovery. For some the journey continues on to resignation and acceptance. Tickets are all stamped: “Destination Undetermined.”

In a strange way, my wife’s illness has brought us closer together. I am happy to assume more of the household chores as I try to make her journey more comfortable. I admire her strength and courage as she navigates the complex world of blood counts, platelets, and the toxic drugs with which cancer patients must contend.

There springs up a support system as survivors give of themselves to comfort a fellow traveler. The heartfelt expressions of concern and encouragement signify that love still prevails in our often callous and superficial culture.

The promise was “for better or for worse” and we certainly have shared a lot of “betters.” I pray for even more down the line. All Aboard!
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.