Another side to cancer
Given a grim diagnosis, a New Milford man writes of evidence of hope and strength
Updated 10:20 am, Tuesday, August 6, 2013
When Bob Heffernan felt a bump on his scalp in December of 2006, he knew almost immediately that something was wrong.
"There's something inside of you that intuitively says, `This could be trouble' and you're afraid to find out what it is," said Heffernan, 57, of New Milford, who is also executive director of the Connecticut Florist Association, the Connecticut Nursery and Landscape Association and the Connecticut Greenhouse Growers Association.
Due largely to his anxiety, he delayed going to the doctor for roughly a month. When he finally had the bump checked out, the news wasn't good. Heffernan was diagnosed with a melanoma. The cancer quickly progressed to stage four, and Heffernan's chances for survival seemed slim. But, despite all the fear and uncertainty, Heffernan was able to find a bright side. He saw all the hope and strength of the people around him, including the other cancer patients he came in contact with. "There were these beautiful moments of human emotion," Heffernan said.
He details the ups and downs of his cancer story in his recent book "Cancer's Gifts: With Love & Hope," (iUniverse, $16.95). The book talks about Heffernan's diagnosis and its aftermath, including the impact his experience had on loved ones, such as his mother and his husband, Allen. Heffernan endured surgery, chemotherapy and even participated in cancer research at the National Institutes of Health, looking to banish his illness.
Today, Heffernan said, he is in "perfect health," but still believes his experience carries important lessons for everyone, particularly those coping with their own cancer battles. He spoke about the book and his ordeal in a recent interview.
Q: Why did you decide to write a book about your cancer experience?
A: Going into cancer as a typical patient, there's all the terrifying fear and worry. You really want to know if you're going to make it or not. All through this journey, there was a high probability I was not going to survive. But I started seeing almost from the beginning the beautiful side of cancer. I started to focus on the positive side of the disease, which is all the people and the care.
You can find beautiful moments even in the most scary situations. There are 23 chapters in this book, and each one of them details grand areas of strength in dealing with cancer. And you do need strength.
Q: What was the most difficult part of your journey?
A: There's a couple of them. One is you constantly wonder if you're going to make it. You also constantly worry about how your disease is going to drag down those around you. I can remember lying in bed, looking up at Allen's face and my mom's face and seeing that fear. You worry about what's happening to the people around you.
Q: You speak a lot in your book about the importance of support -- both from the people in your life, and from the doctors, nurses and other medical staff who worked with you. How crucial is it to have a good network of caregivers in place when you're going through cancer?
A: One of the decisions I had to make really early on is who to tell. I came to see fairly early is that it was to my advantage to let the world know. I think what happens (when you do that) is that an incredible amount of love and support comes back to you. I think that's so important to cancer survival. I think when you get in front of the disease and let people know, a few things happen. You educate people about the disease. But you're also in charge of the message. If you keep it quiet, the rumor mill starts. But it's up to each patient how they handle it.
Q: What was something you didn't know about cancer and cancer treatment that you'd most like to pass on to people reading this book?
A: I think the relationship between the patient and research (is something I learned about). I landed at Yale-New Haven Hospital (for his cancer treatment), which is one of the great centers of cancer care in the world. When Yale had done all they could do, and sent me away (to participate in research at NIH).
The National Institutes of Health is the motherships of medical treatment. If accepted into one of their protocols, you're making a huge contribution to science.
The patient that opens themselves up to research is probably setting themselves up for better outcomes. If you open yourself up to research and agree participate in it, the people doing that research are tightly integrated with others doing research and (those people are the) most connected to the latest technologies and what's in the pipeline. The world of research is an amazing world.
Q: What are you hoping people get out of this book?
A: It's definitely inspirational and uplifting. The message is that there are ways to cope with cancer by focusing on the beautiful aspects of the disease.
For example, The camaraderie (among patients) is huge. When you walk down the street and meet and another cancer survivor, there's this crazy bond that develops and breaks through all sort of barriers.
The disease helps you put into perspective what really matters in life. That's really huge. I write about just enjoying relaxation more and not dwelling on people's conflicts. You realize how absurd so many of those conflicts are in the grand scheme of life. What really matters is enjoying and participating in every aspect of daily life.
"Cancer's Gifts" is available by request at local booksellers, and online through iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and other retailers.
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