What’s in a Number?


Many cultures and individuals give power to numbers. Numbers can translate the seasons into a calendar. Numbers allow us to add and divide and track things in a linear manner. Numbers can cast a fortune or let us know if now might be a good time to buy a lottery ticket and they certainly make finding a destination manageable enough that between the street number and zip code we can find almost anywhere our Thanksgiving dinner might be waiting. And the wrong number, well, that leads to trouble.

Many cancer patients live by the numbers even as our doctors caution us to “wait, just wait.” But blood work translated to numbers is the first indicator our cancer might be growing, breaking through treatment, rushing our hopes. Setting that whisper aside is not easy.

Every 3-4 weeks since diagnosis my blood work has been tabulated into a number that I record in a chart. My chart shows helpful patterns since my marker, the ca 125, is a very individualized indicator. If we went by what is considered normal, I wouldn’t have had the recurrence of my cancer that I have been fighting since August 2011, a tough, long recurrence even if the numbers do not even reflect it should be there. So with my very small number range, I can track the relative behavior of my cancer especially between scans.

Seven or below are numbers I like – they allow me to sigh with the knowledge that my cancer is at least stable albeit visible. Now it climbs small baby steps – 8 in October, 9 in November, laughable upward creeps unless you have my tight range where new cancer growth is visible by 12. I feel sadness at what December may show in blood work and a new ct scan of the insides.
People love to count their blessings and I am no different. I will seat myself at the community table this Thanksgiving with so much I feel grateful for – cancer not being on that list. I share a story below about gratitude and being real. It may resonate with some of you and offend others. A friend relayed it to me who is better at attending cancer support groups than I.
One of my friend’s pals was in the end zone of his cancer, his cancer having just jumped the barricades of his last available drug and was now moving fast. He had weeks left and children still needing to be raised. He had enormous physical pain to boot. At this group a newly diagnosed terminal patient arrived in some place of deep gratitude over all the ‘gifts’ her cancer was giving her. The man turned to her and said, “Honey, you might not always feel that way.” The story has kept me chuckling at what some of us grumps choose not to be grateful for.
Happy Holidays!Unknownwarmly, marcy

About marcy westerling

I am a long time community organizer with a passion for justice and founded the Rural Organizing Project in 1992. Derailed by a Stage IV Ovarian Cancer diagnosis in spring 2010, I have stayed in treatment since then. I am learning how to embrace livingly dying and hope that by starting a Phase One immunology clinical trial at UPenn in spring of 2013 I will have more time to find the sweet spots of thriving while terminally ill.

13 responses »

  1. I hear you Marcy. I’ve been in the 2s and 3s and 4s for more than a year since recurrence in 2012. Inching upwards now. We will see where we are in the new year. Happy Thanksgiving and all the best for December.

  2. I love the cancer support group story and will share it with my mother, who is often exasperated by people who suggest she must be grateful for what she has learned and how she has grown on her cancer journey.

  3. My oncologist is a wonderful woman of few words…..but over time, I have come to learn that usually what she says is right on target.

    At one of my follow-up visits, I was experiencing a lot of anxiety about my fear of recurrence. She patiently listened to me and then quietly responded that “life is filled with uncertainty.” At first, I felt stunned by her response. But on my way home I thought about her comment and realized that she was absolutely correct…..all of life is filled with uncertainty. Her comment reminded me of one of my favorite books that I somehow had forgotten about once I started on this cancer journey……”Comfortable with Uncertainty” by Pema Chodron…..a Buddhist teacher. When I got home, I pulled that book from my bookshelf and began reading it again. My doctor’s heartfelt comment spoke to me in a very deep way……reminded me of something very important that I had somehow had forgotten about……that all of life is filled with uncertainty.

    I’m grateful to all who have the courage to share their thoughts and experiences…..not knowing whether it will speak to someone or not. But if their experience speaks to only one person, they have done much.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. I am thankful that I have this Thanksgiving to celebrate, but I do not say I am thankful for the gifts of cancer. However, I do try to emphasize the things I have learned from the challenge of having had cancer. I believe life is about learning and growing.
    Happy Thanksgiving to you.

  5. I am thankful you are still with us, Marcy, and that I get to see you once a month — and listen to you read your writing. and I am thankful that I don’t have to be thankful for “how cancer has helped me to grow.” Not at all sure it has.

    love to you,

  6. Count me in the group with whom the message resonates, even though I don’t have cancer. May your next number be headed back in the right direction.

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