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5 Lessons Learned From A Cancer Journey

scott garson

Friends noticed Scott Garson’s unusual skin tone at a New Year’s Eve party. He appeared jaundiced and admitted he wasn’t feeling his best. Concerned, they pressed him to see a doctor.

A series of tests quickly led to the conclusion that the 55-year-old needed surgery for a cancerous mass blocking the junction where his common bile duct and small intestine meet. The commercial real estate broker and married father of two was thrust into an unexpected swirl of cancer treatment and recovery.

The reassuring and constant presence of his UH Seidman Cancer Center care team, led by surgical oncologist and pancreatic cancer expert Jordan Winter, MD, steadied him through his cancer journey. Along the way, these five lessons crystallized for him.

1. Accept the Unpredictability

Mr. Garson was at a leadership retreat when he received the phone call that the biopsy showed cancer. He sat down, alone, to contemplate the gravity of this news.

“I knew this was real, very real,” Mr. Garson says. “And it took the wind out of my sails a little bit.”

The pragmatic dealmaker who relishes a challenging puzzle then began to piece together a solution. Aided by Dr. Winter, he focused on the plan: a Whipple procedure, a massive surgery to remove the tumor and reconnect his digestive tract, and bi-weekly sessions of chemotherapy over a six-month period. 

Dr. Winter gave him a date to focus on: Nov. 2, when he would be hosting the inaugural UH Pancreatic Cancer Symposium for cancer patients and their caregivers.

Mr. Garson marked his calendar and began training his sights on what he could control, accepting the unpredictability of the winding road ahead. His endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) and biopsy led to major surgery and chemotherapy.

“Sometimes you have to find the pieces before you can even put them together.” Mr. Garson says. “There is a certain acceptance you need to have with the unpredictability of cancer. It changes you.”

2. Do What You Can When You Can

Chemotherapy affects every individual differently. While some people experience vomiting and/or diarrhea, others have fewer physical symptoms and more psychological burden.

Mr. Garson recommends accepting the modified pace of life with cancer. Do not underestimate the amount of energy it takes for a body to heal from surgery or push through chemotherapy. Try to make those family birthday parties and outings when you can muster the energy, and cut yourself slack when you can’t summon the strength. Only you can make that call.

“It takes so much energy to heal,” Mr. Garson says. “You just have to go with the flow and see what works for you.

“Everyone wants to help you. But the fact of the matter is no one can do it but you.”

3. Maintain Your Humor

Sign reading thank you, Dr. Winter

Scott and his wife looked forward to walking the produce stalls at the farmer’s market in Shaker Square on his off-weeks, when his body had sufficiently rebounded from a round of chemo. Yet every time a well-meaning friend told him he looked great, Mr. Garson responded by saying, “ I must have really looked bad before I got sick.”

Now bearded and 40 pounds leaner, Mr. Garson knew he didn’t look particularly well. He started realizing that cancer is like a filter on the lens of life, and everything now looked different.

He advises people never to say what they don’t mean and keep the sentiment simple.

“Just say, ‘It’s good to see you,’ ” he advises. “Because, quite frankly, it’s good to be seen. If you don’t see me, it’s because I’m not feeling good, but if I’m out and about, it means I’m feeling better.

“I’m not sick, I just have cancer.”

4. Be Deliberate About How You Spend Your Time And Energy

Mr. Garson spent much of the year watching the seasons from the peace and comfort of his bedroom, which is surrounded on three sides by large windows. From the polar vortex of winter and the budding of spring to the warm breezes of summer and the changing colors of fall foliage, he chose his setting carefully.

On days with a little energy to spare, he strolled up the driveway of his Shaker Heights home, maybe pulled a few weeds, possibly sitting down on the pavement. Walking was encouraged to wake up his digestive system that had endured a complicated redesign.

He chatted with his parents and two children when they came to town. He found a rhythm to his days and learned to listen to the demands of his body.

Much as he wanted to, this former extrovert didn’t always have the strength to respond to friends reaching out with text messages and calls. It simply drained his physical and mental energy. When even the cathartic experience of blogging on CaringBridge – a website to efficiently update many people at once, removing the requirement to provide updates individually – was too much, he turned to his wife.

“I didn’t have enough strength to be in a dialogue, even typing sometimes took too much strength,” Mr. Garson recalls. “Save your strength for the things you really want to do. Through my recovery, as I gain strength, I hope to say yes more than I say no.”

5. Choose a Top-Notch, Compassionate Cancer Program

Mr. Garson accepted Dr. Winter’s invitation to speak at the UH Pancreatic Cancer Symposium this fall, sharing the lessons he gleaned in a year unlike any other in his life.

He felt fortunate his cancer was caught early, with symptoms presenting less than one month after his annual physical.

“UH is my hospital; I’ve been a UH patient for years,” Mr. Garson says. “We are very fortunate that we have an outstanding hospital that can attract talent like Dr. Winter, a surgeon with a personality and a bedside manner.”

Dr. Winter did his job, and now Mr. Garson is working on his own: “My job now is to heal.”

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UH Seidman Cancer Center is the only freestanding cancer hospital in the region. The 375,000-square-foot hospital houses all of our cancer services under one roof to optimize patient-and family-centered care, provide the latest therapies, enhance collaboration and promote clinical research and education. Learn more about cancer treatment services at UH Seidman Cancer Center.