Freedman discusses his cancer

by Charlotte Bednar | 5/1/98 5:00am

College President James Freedman spoke candidly about what he called his lifelong "journey through cancer" to an audience of 120 local residents at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center last night.

Using humorous anecdotes and stories from his own experience, Freedman stressed both the importance of speaking to others about the disease and the reality of living with cancer for the rest of one's life.

Freedman described his diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma four years ago as a "stunning thing to learn" and called it something that would change his life forever.

"You suddenly realize you have moved from one definition of self to another when you have cancer," Freedman said. "I had moved from one realm to another, where I was vulnerable, and where treatment might not work."

Freedman, who was diagnosed in 1994 with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and underwent six months of chemotherapy, said having cancer is analogous to becoming a parent, in that both experiences will remain with a person for a lifetime.

Freedman said he also asked himself "why me?" when diagnosed and said there is "a tendency to self-pity stronger than you wish."

Freedman said he is thankful to have the opportunity to speak both publicly and privately to others about the disease, because it has allowed him to express his fears about the disease and to help others. Announcing his diagnosis to the College and the community also drew valuable support in the initial stages of treatment, Freedman said.

"I saw that by being public about it and having it known in the community, people came to me," Freedman said.

One of the first to call Freedman after his surgery was former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas '62, one of Freedman's colleagues from law school. Freedman said talking about the disease with Tsongas, who also suffered from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, helped.

Freedman said having cancer also gave him the opportunity to become "the closest of friends" with Kyle Roderick '99, a student who also suffered from lymphoma. Freedman described seeing Roderick recover from a bone marrow transplant and graduate last June as "thrilling."

Roderick was one of a dozen students who have come in to speak with him about their experiences or their parents' experiences with cancer, and Freedman said he enjoys talking with them.

Freedman said he also finds strength in going to support groups and in speaking to audiences about cancer.

"It's good to get if off of your soul and to confirm in others that they are not alone, and that it's OK to talk about it," Freedman said.

While he is optimistic about the future, Freedman described the disease as one of great uncertainty.

Freedman said his doctor made it clear that treatment may not work, and described this uncertainty as "one of the most important consequences of living with cancer."

While his tests in the last three years have shown no signs of a recurrence of the cancer, Freedman said he must continue to get CAT scans every three months, a process he described as "a reminder that I am still vulnerable."

Freedman said he still "gets to trembling" when waiting for the results of these tests, wondering if the ordeal will start over again.

He said that hearing about the deaths of people in the news from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is also difficult. He was especially affected by the Tsongas's death.

Freedman also spoke about the effect of the disease on his family. He said his wife and children were frightened by the possibility of his death and planned to spend more time together as a family and "to do the things we always said we wanted to."

"We've done a bit of that," Freedman said, but added that he continued to work throughout his treatment and said "trying to slow down didn't really work for me."