A Bond Born In Pain And Fear

They can be close to family and friends, but for cancer survivors – no matter the type – there is a deep connection only they understand

Too often in life we as a culture use the hyperbole of war to describe our lives – battling our weight problems, shooting down ideas or entrenched at our desks. But there is one group among us for which those words ring true: cancer survivors.

Last year alone, more than 6,700 people were diagnosed with cancer in our state, and for each and every one of them, just like our men and women in uniform, they began a fight that has two possible results and only one of them involves having another birthday.

It is for this reason that the survivors of this insidious disease in its many forms have a kinship that one generally only finds in comrades-in-arms, a bond that develops from having stared into the void and coming out changed, but still breathing, on the other side. It’s a connection that even a best friend or a mother cannot make because it comes from the doing, not the knowing.

“It is a totally different connection with survivors as opposed to friends who don’t have it,” says Michelle Sato, a 24-year-old oncology nurse at Queen’s, who in 1998 discovered she had osteosarcoma.

American Cancer Society

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“Knowing there are other people who have gone through the same thing, it really helps. No matter what age you are when you experience cancer, the experiences you go through are very similar.” Leah Friel photos lfriel@midweek.com

“Even if I have a best friend for years, then I meet a cancer survivor, you just know that they understand what you went through. It is almost hard to explain; you just know that there is a special connection. I feel comfortable talking to my other friends about it, but when they don’t know how it feels to throw up every day, to be stuck at home while everyone is going out, it is just a deeper connection.”

When she was diagnosed with bone cancer at age 10, Sato had no idea that there were others suffering just like her. All she knew was up until then her life was sports, and now doctors were telling her that she could never play again. Her treatment left her right leg deeply scarred, her head bald and her hopes shattered.

“It took me into a really dark place,” remembers Sato. “Why me? This sucks! This is not fair! I coped with it through anger at the whole world. I told my parents, just let me die.”

But Sato was not alone, and this is where the American Cancer Society may be its most valuable. While it is the world’s largest private funder of cancer research, having contributed more than $3.4 billion to the cause, it is in connecting fellow survivors that it brings the most hope. For children suffering the disease, it has Camp Anuenue, where kids can meet their fellow soldiers in the war for their lives.

“What turned it around for me was the camp,” says Sato. “When I turned the corner, and seeing the ocean on the North Shore, and other kids with no hair, braces – that is when I turned around on my road to recovery.

“Knowing there are other people who have gone through the same thing, it really helps. No matter what age you are when you experience cancer, the experiences you go through are very similar.”

Just ask living legend Jimmy Borges, who last year at the age of 75 discovered he had a tumor the size of a small football on his liver.

“I told the doctor, I have been getting such bad news lately, say something good to me,” says Borges, “and he said, ‘Mr. Borges, you have cancer.’ It was the most devastating news for me.”

Miraculously and despite dire predications from four different physicians, Borges has made a full recovery and is singing again, but the experience forever changed him and bound him to his fellow survivors.

“What I found out is that we are joined at the hip,” says Borges. “I have gotten more calls from people who had cancer, and I gave them hope and they gave me hope. It was so helpful.

“My mandate now – now that the curse became a blessing – is to work with young people and get them on the road to self-realization and a positive self-image. If you like yourself, you are going to like what you do. Just keep getting up.”

That connection became evident when he first met Cher Conner, a young surgery nurse at Pali Momi who was just diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in November. Even as strangers, Borges felt such a kinship that he entreated her to take off her wig so that he could appreciate her beauty, even going so far as kissing her on her smooth, barren pate.

What would have been offen-sive under any other circumstance seemed perfectly natural among their group, a gesture of affection within a circle that only their suffering will let them enter.

While Conner was taken off guard at first by Borges’ deed, she is appreciative to know that are others battling just like her.

“Just knowing that if I need something, that there is someone out there to help me,” says Conner, who has a 2-year-old daughter named Kailea, “that I could talk to someone, just someone that is there to help you feel better about what you are going through.”

When she needs someone to talk to, she would be hard-pressed to find someone with a better take on it than Sato, who after 14 years has learned to appreciate everything she has been granted.

“It’s a blessing that I’m still here. Before I would think, ‘Why me, why me,’ and now I think, ‘Why not?'” says Sato. “For some reason, I have been given this second chance to do something with my life, and I believe that there is something I am meant to do in this world, and I just want to live in every moment and be able to share my story.”

To help others like Conner, Sato and Borges keep celebrating their lives, ACS is holding Bridging Birthdays of Hope Aug. 21 at The Modern Honolulu. Tickets cost $150 per person and include a hosted bar and heavy pupus with entertainment by Mailani. For more information, call ACS at 595-7500.