This weekend is the annual General McLane Relay for Life to Benefit the American Cancer Society. This week, in lieu of the Lancer Letter, I am submitting a portion of my keynote address given at the event last year. Email me if you would like the full version but by all means, PLEASE GO AND SUPPORT THIS EVENT ON SATURDAY AND SUNDAY!
I will begin today by asking you a question: Why are you here? Why are you here?
I imagine if I passed around a microphone to get responses to that question, answers would vary. Some of you would say you are here to “support a good cause.” Others would say “it sounded like fun – and it’s for a good cause.” Still others my say, “my friend dragged me into this.” Most of you could speak to somehow being personally affected by cancer.
Now, if I were to give you a different context under which to address that question, I may get different answers.
Why are you here? Not here at the relay for life – why are you here – on earth?
Here’s a better question – why am I here? Why am I alive?
Like all cancer survivors, I’ve asked myself the question – why did I live and why do others die from this disease?
Like drug addiction, cancer is cunning, baffling and powerful. It does not only effect a discriminate clientele – young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated. None are exempt from cancer.
I remember the day of my diagnosis like it was yesterday – December 20, 1990 – a Thursday. I remember the weather – a typical Erie, drab gray sky with a few snowflakes in the air. I remember sitting in the conference room of my doctor’s office at the Hamot professional building, staring out the window over the lake. I remember when he drew a picture of my tumor and explained why he wanted to remove it the very next day. I remember thinking, Cancer? How can I have cancer? I am only 33 years old. I had just become an administrator 2 years prior and had so many plans and dreams. I had been invited to interview for a job in a neighboring district. I didn’t have time for this!
It’s a funny thing the mind does with a potentially terminal diagnosis. Sometimes it suppresses the information to the point you feel like nothing has happened. And in that period of suppression as I left the doctor’s office, my mind convinced me I could just return to school and finish the day.
Those of you who have dealt with a cancer diagnosis, and those of you who have dealt with grief, understand me when I say that the days and weeks that followed were a roller coaster of emotions. Fear, anger, anxiety, deep sadness and sometimes calm all make their appearance, sometimes staying for hours or sometimes just for minutes. Any of those emotions could last for a day, or you can cycle through them all within the period of an hour.
Because I was a church organist, I delayed my surgery until the day after Christmas – after all, a church organist just can’t miss Christmas Eve. My doctor had explained that the biopsy of my tumor would likely reveal one of two types of cancer. Seminoma which had a 92% cure rate and would only require radiation. Non-seminoma had a 50% survival rate and would require both radiation and chemotherapy, a bleak prognosis.
I received the biopsy results on December 28 and I’ve come to call December 20-28 the 8 defining days of my life. I think we’ve all asked ourselves the question, “What would I do if I knew I only had a certain amount of time to live?” Prior to those defining days, my answer to that question involved grand travel plans and adventures. But when there was a chance that scenario was going to be a real question, I had a very different answer: I just wanted to keep doing what I was doing. No fancy trips; no extravagant purchases – just continue being an educator is what I hoped I could do.
What is it about the human condition that requires death to come knocking at our door to understand what is important in life?
As you may guess, I had the highly curable version of my cancer. A month of radiation and close follow-up by my oncologists and I was declared cancer-free seven months after the initial diagnosis.
So back to my original question: Why am I here?
In the course of my work with students, I have taken the opportunity to counsel students who have faced cancer and the subsequent death of a parent. In these situations, I couldn’t help but wonder why a father of four would have to succumb to the disease when I had survived. Why did a son have to say goodbye to his mother who was everything in his life, yet I lived? And in these situations, I empathized with their loss by wondering how I would deal with losing the person I loved the most, my wife Judy. I have to say that working with these young people as they dealt with their deep loss was an inspiration to me.
So, why am I here? Answering that question on an existential basis is now easier for me to answer. My cancer experience helped me learn that pursuing personal success is, as Solomon put it, “a chasing of the wind.” I am now content to be in a small town called Edinboro. Many see my recent appointment as superintendent as major success. Ironically, it has come only after my cancer experience helped me get my priorities straight.
Why I am here today at this event, is to say something to three different groups of people at this event.
1. To those of you presently struggling with this disease or watching a family member or friend deal with cancer: Your pain and your struggle cannot be minimized. But know that even in the darkest moments, God is there, people will be there for you, and if you look closely enough, the experience will teach you many things even while you struggle to find meaning in it.
2. To my fellow cancer survivors: I encourage you to take what you’ve learned from your experience and use it for the benefit of others. You will get more than you give.
3. To those of you who have given hours and hours to planning this event, Dan and Julie Mennow and the relay planners and to those of you here to raise money for more cancer research, I say thank you. At one time, the cancer I had would have killed me. But because of research and the money that supports it, the cancer I had and many other types, is highly curable. And now, twenty years later, the prognosis statistics I cited earlier have improved dramatically.
This is the first time since my diagnosis nearly 20 years ago that I have spoken publicly about my cancer diagnosis. I have been comfortable discussing it with those going through the experience and a few others, but have never felt comfortable addressing a group. As I have watched my friend and partner, Dan Mennow, work so faithfully on this event the last two years, and as I have seen so many people pitch in, I felt compelled to do my part. You have no idea how many lives may be saved, and in turn, how many of those saved lives will use what they learn from their experience to touch others because of your efforts here today.
We have to keep raising money for cancer research. We have to keep fighting. We have to have hope.
Thank you, and enjoy the relay.
The Lancer Letter is a weekly editorial by Richard Scaletta, Superintendent of Schools, General McLane School District. Opinions expressed are Mr. Scaletta’s views on the issues and subjects of discussion.