During the long, often distressing month in which Howard Bressler was confined to a hospital, anyone calling his room while he was asleep, elsewhere in the hospital or otherwise preoccupied heard a voice message modeled after the one on Moviefone.com:
“Hello, and welcome to cancer phone,” it began. “If you know the name of the cancer you would like to hear about, press 1. To choose from a list of current cancers, press 2. To find out which cancers are prevalent in your area, press 3. If you want to leave a message for Howard, please start speaking after the tone. Have a great day, and remember, bald is beautiful.”
Some of his callers were put off by the message, Bressler recalls 14 years later, while others were simply confused. But most appreciated his humor, telling him later that it “helped them relax, and get past the anxiety of not knowing what to say to me.”
Most of all, though, the person helped by the message was Bressler himself, a 47-year-old attorney who was diagnosed in August 2000 with acute promyelocytic leukemia, or APL, one of the four basic types of leukemia.
As shaken as he was by the diagnosis, it took Bressler only hours to begin developing an approach toward coping with the shock, the treatment and the thought that APL could take his life. That approach included living life as normally as he possibly could, maintaining a positive and even cheerful outlook around those close to him, including his wife and two young daughters, and laughing whenever he could. It also included investigating and questioning every aspect of his treatment, measures greatly assisted by his training in law, and grounding himself through prayer — an especially meaningful activity for Bressler, a member of the tightly knit Orthodox community in West Hempstead, L.I., with a sister and other relatives in Israel.
Bressler has now collected those tips in a recently published book, “The Layman’s Guide to Surviving Cancer: From Diagnosis Through Treatment and Beyond” (Langdon Street Press).
Endorsed by former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the book is aimed at anyone who might benefit from it, religious and secular alike, Bressler recently told The Jewish Week. He also said that much of the advice he included in his guide could serve anyone with a life-threatening illness or anyone facing adversity. Among the book’s chapters are those devoted to searching for information, eating well and exploring holistic approaches — discussed with humor and from a patient’s perspective.
In Bressler’s case, the diagnosis came on Aug. 23, 2000, a date ingrained in his memory, and he had to be hospitalized the very next day. Leukemia is a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow and the lymphatic system, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website. APL is a subset of acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, which is differentiated from other forms of leukemia based on the type of cell from which it originates.
Although APL is among the most treatable forms of leukemia, with a survival rate of 70 percent, those who get the disease may develop serious blood-clotting or bleeding problems, placing them in “imminent danger,” said Stuart Lichtman, the physician who diagnosed and treated Bressler at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, L.I. Now a staff member at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Lichtman said Bressler’s first round of chemotherapy, delivered at a high dosage, had to begin within days of his diagnosis.
Bressler remained in the hospital for a month, but he continued his treatment at home, taking oral chemotherapy — a pill — nearly every day for nine months. He was also lucky enough to have been accepted into a clinical trial involving arsenic treatment, which lasted every day for a month, Bressler said. Although Bressler had to make regular visits to the hospital for about eight years, where doctors made sure there was no recurrence, he was considered free of cancer as soon as his treatments ended.
Lichtman echoed Bressler’s view, saying that at the time he was diagnosed, “the treatment of APL was undergoing dramatic change. … Howard was a beneficiary of those changes. Ten years earlier, he would have died” of APL.
Bressler thought of dying at the time as a possibility, but only a possibility, he recalled over brunch one Sunday at a kosher café in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens.
“I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to receive the diagnosis I did and be that sick without thinking about dying,” he said. “But I don’t think I ever thought in my mind that, yeah, I’m going to die.” Much to the contrary, he was convinced he would live.
Some of what Bressler believes may be difficult for others to swallow, much less understand, as he acknowledges in his book and during interviews. That includes the view that his illness was part of a divine plan and may, in fact, be a blessing.
He’s never thought that “God pushes buttons and makes things happen,” Bressler said. But at the same time, he continued, his cancer was certainly a test or challenge “to make me understand and appreciate the value of what I had and what I had been given.” What he experienced has made him a better father, husband and son, as well as a more empathetic person, Bressler said.
Even through the worst of it, Bressler recounted, he maintained his faith, even turning to Jewish texts to explore what they had to say. Part of his quest for normalcy during his monthlong hospital stay involved removing the IV in his arm every morning so he could daven.
Those helped by Bressler’s approach include readers as diverse as Sharilyn Clarke, 56, of Manhattan, and Deborah Lewis, 48, of Oceanside, L.I.
Diagnosed in August with stage-four cancer of unknown origins, Clarke said the news scared her deeply. But Bressler’s book helped her “keep things in perspective,” reinforcing the idea that she could remain positive and maintain her faith in God even with her illness.
Like Bressler, Clarke feels “blessed,” she said during an interview, adding that she’s a fervent Baptist. She’s certain that she contracted the illness for a reason, she said, speculating that it “could be a lesson” for her or for her children. And she’s certain, too, that her life won’t be ending and that she, like Bressler, “will be able to tell a survivor story.”
Lewis received a diagnosis of carcinoid, a tumor from cells in the nervous and endocrine system, six years ago and is still being treated for the disease, she said. A native of Great Neck, where she attended a Reform synagogue as a child, she considers herself secular. But she, too, found Bressler’s book encouraging.
“I think when you have a cancer diagnosis, you have a lot of doubt — about your future, your well-being, your ability to care for your family,” said Lewis, an oncology social worker. “The thing I liked about the book is that it gave me back a sense of control and hope.”
For more information, contact Bressler at http://www.howardbressler.com/