Column: The Cancer Bell Tolls

For Whom the Cancer Bell Tolls


            While the order of stanzas often changes, the message in a poem by Martin Niemöller, a prominent Protestant pastor who spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps, remains constant and tragic:


First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Socialist.


Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.


Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Jew.


Then they came for me –

And there was no one left to speak for me.


Eight decades after Niemöller penned these powerful words they have taken on new meaning to me. Personal meaning. About another heinous killer.


First cancer came for my young children’s beloved daycare provider, Jeannie.


Then cancer came for my dearest friend, Karen.


Then cancer came for Eric. And Louise. And Keith.


After gallant battles by each, and despite everything modern medicine could throw at it, this Gestapo of a disease unmercifully claimed all of their lives.


Then cancer came yet again and again, for my dad just over a year ago and two months later for my eldest brother. Surgery and radiation and chemotherapy – and let’s be honest, luck and god’s grace, too – saved their lives.


Then cancer came for me. Last Dec. 17, my wonderful dermatologist, Dr. Jill Mines, took a biopsy from a crack in my lip that stubbornly wouldn’t heal. The lab results came back positive for squamous cell carcinoma in situ: skin cancer.


A few weeks later Dr. Arthur Flynn, a talented plastic surgeon, sliced a wedge out of my right lower lip. For a while I looked like a bass that lost a battle with a barbed fishing lure. But the painful pout was a small price to pay because the new biopsy margins came back clear. Translation: The doc got it all.


Cancer is not only frightening, it is frighteningly common. To give you an idea, two out of five Californians will be diagnosed with some form of the disease in their lifetime. In other words, the cancer club is about as exclusive as Sam’s Club.


The good news is the American Cancer Society is making an impact through groundbreaking research to prevent, diagnose, treat and cure cancer. In fact, its annual Relays For Life raise funds that help save 400 birthdays each day.


The Relay For Life of Ventura will be held next Saturday (May 18) beginning at 10 a.m. and feature a festival of food trucks so even if you are not participating directly, you should drop by.


(Other upcoming local Relays For Life include: Ojai’s Nordhoff High, June 1; Westlake’s Oaks Christian School, June 8; Hueneme High, June 22; Fillmore’s Harmony Community Center, July 12; and Carpinteria’s Linden Field, July 20.)


After long successful runs at Ventura High and then Buena High’s football stadiums, this year’s Ventura event – under the guidance of new tireless chairperson Patty Abou-Samra – is moving to the San Buenaventura State Beach. It is difficult to imagine a more beautiful setting.


Actually, in a manner, this coastal site will become even more breathtaking with the sight of 1,500 members on 65 relay teams as they walk for 24 hours around the clock and around a circular 400-meter path outlined in chalk on the grass field. Their shared purpose is to raise funds, raise awareness, raise hope.


Raising more goose bumps than a Pacific sunset does will be the nighttime Luminaria Ceremony where hundreds of candles outlining the walking path’s perimeter will be lit, each flame representing a loved one’s life prematurely extinguished by cancer.


John Donne, a 17 th century English poet, wrote these immortal words that inspired no less than Ernest Hemingway: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”


When I look in the bathroom mirror a slight scar on my lip reminds me for whom cancer’s bell tolls; it may toll for thou, too; or surely for someone thou’st knows or loves.


— Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at