Have you seen it? The TV spot opens with a woman sitting near a crackling fire under a beautiful, star-filled sky. She slowly lifts the lid of a basket as if to look at the treasures inside. Instead, she removes one item at a time, pausing to reflect before dropping it into the flames. A photo, a scarf, a sheet of paper and a hospital bracelet disappear into the fire. “Your cancer is gone,” the announcer pronounces, and we realize we are privy to a momentous event. The woman is emptying her cancer box.

When you are first diagnosed with cancer, you go home from the oncologist’s office with a few sheets of paper and maybe a DVD of your scans. They’ll be placed on a little corner of your kitchen counter or dresser top for future reference. As the days pass, the pile of papers grows taller with appointment reminders, booklets about what to expect and helpful hints for managing each side effect you experience along the way. Eventually, you realize the overflowing stack requires some taming and you need a “cancer box.”

Perhaps you’ll start with something cute and small that even matches your décor. Down the road, cute goes out the window and functional moves in because you need an even bigger box. In go physician’s business cards, notes from the last appointment, get-well cards and “that tube of lotion that didn’t really work all that well but you might need it.”

If you are just beginning this journey, you may long for the day you can throw your cancer box into a fire. Just as healing from treatment takes time, so does disposing of the reminders from it. Little by little, you will feel stronger, and you will remove some of the items that are no longer useful to you. Chemo ends and out goes a stack of papers for managing side effects. Radiation is over, and you no longer need the tube of lotion. The port comes out. Hooray! Another booklet gets tossed.

Three years after my treatment ended, I still have a cancer box, but the contents have changed dramatically. It contains get-well cards from friends who have become dearer by traveling this road with me. Also nestled inside is the devotion our pastor shared with my husband and me while we were still in shock after learning of the diagnosis. It contains my radiation and chemo “graduation” certificates signed by the kind and loving people on my team, people who really didn’t need to sign them because I will never forget them.

I am still adding something to my cancer box. So far there are five red spiral notebooks, journals I started on the day of diagnosis, a reminder of how far this journey has taken me.

To paraphrase another commercial, “So, what’s in your cancer box?”

Share Your Thoughts

Do you have a cancer box like Beth’s? What’s in it? How have the contents changed throughout your journey?

About the Author

Since she was a young girl growing up in Wauwatosa, Beth Dowhen has loved teaching. Eventually Beth received a phone call from the principal of Wisconsin Lutheran High School asking if she would consider teaching there. After 19 years, Beth reluctantly left the school and students she loved because she had developed an undiagnosed medical condition that left her exhausted after a day in the classroom. For two years, Beth and her doctors tried to solve the mystery. Eventually, Beth was diagnosed with Stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma at the base of her tongue. No one suspected oral cancer since Beth was a nonsmoker, nondrinker, and HPV negative. Beth has received radiation and chemotherapy and some complementary acupuncture therapy, and now her scans show no evidence of cancer. She's returned to teaching, this time as a volunteer parenting coach at a counseling center.

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