Tim Woodward

That shock when your doctor tells you that you have cancer

Idaho Statesman's Tim Woodward reflects on a cancer diagnosis: His.

The prognosis is good and he's doing fine, but hearing those words "You have cancer" makes one inclined to reflect on life. "Bottom line: I still consider myself a lucky guy," says Idaho Statesman columnist and author Tim Woodward.
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The prognosis is good and he's doing fine, but hearing those words "You have cancer" makes one inclined to reflect on life. "Bottom line: I still consider myself a lucky guy," says Idaho Statesman columnist and author Tim Woodward.

All my life I’ve been dodging bullets.

The mental illnesses that have affected three generations of my family bypassed me.

When I was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, it turned out to be something harmless instead.

When it was sending virtually everyone to Vietnam during the war there, the Navy sent me to fight the Cold War in Germany.

So it was a shock when I was stricken with cancer.

It should have been a routine procedure. I was having some minor problems following surgery and asked my doctor whether they’d be worth checking. My hope was that a procedure called a cystoscopy would reveal some small problem that could easily be corrected. The possibility of a serious problem never entered my mind.

There are things you don’t want to hear a doctor say during a medical procedure. One is “hmmm, this is interesting.” What’s interesting to a doctor often means a problem for the patient.

Another thing you don’t want to hear is what my doctor said:

“Hmm … this is annoying.”


“See this thing that looks like a sea anemone?” she said, pointing to a circular blob on the computer screen. “I don’t want you to worry too much, but that has to be biopsied.”

My doctor has a sense of humor. She knows I’m a worrier, so she gave me a “prescription” not to worry:

“Take once a day, twice if needed.”

It worked. I didn’t worry.

The “sea anemone” was a tumor. It was removed at the hospital rather than the clinic because it required anesthesia, but I got to go home the same day. The appointment to discuss the results was the following week. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that this would be another bullet dodged.

It wasn’t.

The diagnosis: a form of bladder cancer. The good news, my doctor said, was that it couldn’t have been caught any earlier and wasn’t invasive.

The bad news, she said, is that those kinds of tumors like to come back. So I have to be checked regularly — a cystoscopy every three months for two years, every six months for three more years and once a year after that for the rest of my life.

That’s if the cancer doesn’t return. If it does, it will have to be removed and the clock reset, with cystoscopies every three months again.

On one hand, it didn’t seem fair. That type of cancer usually happens to people who smoke or have been exposed to certain types of chemicals. I tried to start smoking half a dozen times as a teenager, got sick every time and finally gave up, not realizing at the time how lucky that was. And to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never been exposed to hazardous chemicals.

So why me? Probably everyone with cancer asks that. The answer is that there isn’t an answer, so there’s no point in dwelling on it. And relatively speaking, I’m lucky. I have an excellent doctor and live in a time when medical science makes this sort of thing manageable. Compared with people who had the same diagnosis a generation or two ago, I’m getting off easy.

Still, there’s something about being told you have cancer that rattles you deep down. We spend most of our lives living as if we’ll live forever. We know we’re mortal, obviously, and that the end could come at any time. But it seems far away, almost theoretical.

Until you’re told that you have the disease everyone dreads.

Even when it’s manageable, it makes you realize that you’re not invincible. You won’t live forever, and you might not have as much time as you thought you did.

Medical bullets not dodged are wake-up calls, reminders to make the most of whatever time we do have. They tend to rearrange our priorities. Getting the big raise or the new car become less important than making amends to those we’ve wronged or helping those less fortunate than we are.

I’ve been fortunate to have had a pretty good life. I’ve enjoyed good health, been married to a good woman for 46 years, and have great kids and grandkids.

I was lucky enough to have been born in the United States, where we enjoy freedom and, compared with much of the world, prosperity. I grew up in Boise when it was an idyllic place to grow up and spent most of my working years at a job that was almost never boring and gave me a front-row seat to things most people only read about or see on television. I’ve been to more than 30 countries and all but three of the 50 states. Throw in Boise State winning three Fiesta Bowls and the Cubs winning the World Series and it adds up to a pretty good deal.

If a higher power had offered me a deal like that when I was 21, I’d have taken it in a heartbeat.

The first of the procedures needed every three months found nothing worrisome.

One down and an uncertain number of procedures to go.

Bullets to be dodged, for an amount of time yet to be determined.

Here’s hoping it’s a long time. And if not, no complaints.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Know someone who would make a good column subject for him? Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.