“You have cancer.” Those words, directed at almost anyone, can have bone-chilling effects. “Cancer” is practically an obscenity, and the people who have it spewed at them often run through the gamut of emotions any serious insult would evoke: anger, fear, guilt, sadness, shame. Being told that you have cancer can, in many people, even cause an almost catatonic-like state of indecision, an inability to act or make important decisions at all.
Those are among the reactions Howard Bressler had when he was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia in the summer of 2000. At 33 years old, Howard was a successful attorney with a prominent Manhattan law firm and a married father of two young girls, seemingly with a world of future opportunities laid out before him. Then he started to feel sick. He was listless, lethargic, and running a low-grade fever that wouldn’t go away. He felt like something just wasn’t right. So he went to an oncologist at North Shore University Hospital, underwent blood tests and a bone-marrow biopsy, and heard those fateful words, “You have cancer,” applied to himself.
Everything changed. As Howard explains, “In an instant, everything I had come to expect was thrown into disarray. Everything that I thought was settled—my family life, my relationships, my job, my very meaning and place in this world—became suddenly unhinged.” A year of chemotherapy, including a clinical trial with arsenic trioxide treatments, followed. Mortality and an insecure future were his companions but they were accompanied by optimism. “I had many moments of doubt and fear but far more moments of hope and faith,” he says. Baldness, digestive issues, fatigue, and debilitating headaches were part of the price he paid for a cure. But a cure is what he got, and now he has written a book designed to help other cancer patients through the process.
In The Layman’s Guide to Surviving Cancer: From Diagnosis Through Treatment and Beyond, Howard uses his personal experiences, perspectives, and extensive research to create a roadmap for other cancer patients, addressing the physical, emotional, spiritual, nutritional, and practical aspects of navigating through a cancer ordeal. He covers many of the issues cancer patients face, such as how to deal with the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, where to get the necessary information about one’s diagnosis and treatment options, how to address the “why me” aspect of cancer, and the effects of attitude, stress, and diet on a patient’s prognosis and ability to handle treatments. “An informed patient is an empowered patient,” Howard says, “and an empowered patient is usually a good, proactive patient.” His book has received accolades from several leading oncologists and medical school professors, who have described it as “a book every cancer patient should read” and one that “should and will become ’the Bible’ for patients who have been diagnosed with cancer.”
As Howard describes the situation when he was diagnosed and hospitalized, he received several books, “but they were long … They were overly detailed. They were full of complicated statistics. They were denser than my mind was willing to entertain in the throes of my diagnosis.” As a result, in writing The Layman’s Guide to Surviving Cancer, he undertook to write “the book I wish I had when I was first diagnosed.” In doing so, he used the techniques he learned as a lawyer: “My job involves taking complicated issues and breaking them down in a way that people can understand. That has especially been true in many of the toxic tort cases I have handled, where complex scientific issues and studies are involved. I have learned over the years how to interpret research studies, weed out the evidence, and explain the relevant findings to lay-people.” As oncologist and Columbia University Professor Fernando J. Bianco writes, that experience, coupled with Howard’s own leukemia battle, has helped Howard create a book that “provides important, practical information, with interesting references, while flowing naturally and being easy to read and understand.” Former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman has described it as “a powerful and inspiring must-read book for any cancer patient and their loved ones navigating through the cancer experience.”
To find out more about Howard’s book and experiences, or to order the book, visit www.HowardBressler.com. You can also contact Howard through the blog he runs for cancer patients and their families, www.wecansurvivecancer.com. v