Advocate of the Month – July 2014 logo

The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance would like to thank Abigail Cashelle for sharing her story of how mesothelioma touched her life. Abigail is a twenty-something girl, living with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (a connective tissue disorder), and our Advocate of the Month for July. Living the rollercoaster of illness and medical treatment has taught her that what’s hidden beneath the surface is what really counts. Abigail blogs at Hidden Courage.

He was Tall

I only have a few memories of life before age 5 — being chased by a goose, my best friend’s family moving to Russia, and Matthew and Robert. Matthew and Robert are memorable because they were tall, so tall in fact that they were the only two people in my whole church who had to duck to fit through a doorway. Their families had kids my age and they taught our Sunday school classes. Matthew and Robert also supervised our crazy outings to the park where the boys tried every trick up their sleeve to make us girls miserable, while the girls tried to form ridiculous rules for our secret societies. Mostly, I remember knowing from a very early age that Matthew and Robert were special.

I mention this because Robert was the first person I knew to die. He wasn’t old, he wasn’t “bad”, he didn’t “deserve” it somehow. It was my first touch of death– the arbitrariness, the finality of it, and the reality of it.

I remember learning that Robert had mesothelioma. I was in high school, and we had just returned from spending a week at his house with his family. I had gone to elementary school with his son, and my sister was best friends with his daughter. In elementary school, I had spent a lot of time at their house just doing the things that little girls do — making up stories, playing outside, driving the dog crazy, begging Robert to do things for us. When our family moved to another state, we had kept in touch and visited each other. Now he had cancer?

I was sure that he was going to survive it somehow. After all, other friends from church had survived cancer. And he was so robust and energetic. He was a good person who worked hard, played with his kids, served in church, and ate well. Most of all, he was tall and he wasn’t old. For a while he did survive. But, eventually, cancer won out.

For me, Robert’s battle with mesothelioma challenged my understanding of human life and the way in which God worked. I had grown up in a fairy tale world where only villains and “old” people died. Death was inevitable. It didn’t happen to good people, to people who feared God, to people who were young and healthy. I thought death was something you deserved, something earned.

It took me a long time to accept Robert’s death and to even begin to understand it. My own struggle with chronic illness (a genetic condition) has helped me realize that life and its meaning are not necessarily told in how it ends, but in how it plays out. I have begun to see Robert less as someone who wasn’t strong enough (or good enough or young enough) to overcome cancer, but as someone who lived his life to the fullest, who lived selflessly, and who care about those around him. I had evaluated Robert (and Matthew) by their height and deemed them special, but now I realize that what made them amazing adults in my childhood was their heart for children, their capacity to spend time with us, and their laughter. I had always seen Robert as special, but I had misunderstood what made him that way. Being tall made him different, but the dedication, loyalty, and charity of Robert made him special. After all, Matthew was just as tall and was as healthy as could be. Having cancer marked a new difference in Robert, but it didn’t (because it couldn’t) change who he was.

Many things in life are out of our control, beyond even our scope of understanding, but — how we live our life and the legacy we leave — we can choose what that will be. After all, it’s who we choose to be, not what we pass through, that defines us. Nothing, not cancer, not chronic illness, can take that away from us.