A New List for a New Year

January is a time for lists, for writing down resolutions, plans, hopes and dreams. We look ahead and imagine a better, healthier life for our slimmer, more disciplined selves. But I made a different sort of list this year, a tougher but ultimately (I think) more rewarding inventory. I got the idea for my list a couple of days after Christmas, during a memorial service for an old friend who died of Huntington's disease. Huntington's is a dreadful affliction, a rare, inherited and incurable brain disease marked by physical and mental deterioration. As I sat and listened to stories about my friend and his brave battle with an unbeatable foe, I thought about my brother, John, who was diagnosed with oral cancer in 2005 and who is now doing fine. I also thought about my father, who beat colon cancer 22 years ago; a younger member of my extended family who is living with bipolar disorder, and a friend facing the daily challenge of hepatitis C. You see where this is going. When I finally wrote it out, the list of diseases and conditions affecting people I know (and knew)—family, friends and colleagues—numbered 17 and included heart disease, multiple sclerosis, brain cancer, lymphoma, prostate
cancer, epilepsy, breast cancer, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, hypertension, depression and brain aneurysm. There were multiple cases of some diseases, including lymphoma, breast cancer and colon cancer.

A grim exercise, some might say, to compile what amounts to an index of suffering and, in some cases, death. And I admit that on the page my list reads like a cold collection of clinical terms. But I have faces to go with all of those diseases, and names and stories, too. I have laughs to go with the tears. So will you, when you make your own list. Yours might be shorter than mine—I'm in my 50s, an age when a man almost always hesitates before answering the phone—or it might be longer. But you will no doubt have one. And once you do, you might well ask, "What the hell am I supposed to do with it?"

Be grateful, first of all, if you are not on it. I'm not on mine, and I have a new appreciation for my own good health and good fortune. If you are on it, perhaps the lesson is that you are not alone in your predicament. There is a natural tendency to be shocked every time we hear that someone we know is sick. In fact, as your list probably makes clear, illness is a lot more common than we like to acknowledge. It is, in fact, a constant; last year more than 1.4 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer.

With my list in hand, I'm working toward a new way of thinking about health and disease. Illness is the rule, not the exception. That may sound depressing, but if I accept the idea—and how can I not when I read all those names?—then I have to do more than wait around for the next dreaded phone call. For one thing, I have to get serious about preventing things that are, at least in part, preventable, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. That means eating right and exercising more, two perennial resolutions that have more urgency now, thanks to my list.

Another thing I can do is be more useful to the people on my list. Like most folks, I usually make it a point not to think about a friend's or relative's health problems when I'm hanging out with him. But talking can be a good thing. It may not be easy—for either party—but there's no doubt that sharing the burden of an illness can be beneficial. "And it doesn't really matter most of the time what you say," says
Susan Brown, director of health education for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the breast-cancer foundation. "It's just that you communicate that you care." I also think the time has come to walk and ride and maybe even write a check once in a while to help raise money for research into some of the conditions on my list. I'm all done telling myself everything is OK. Everything is not—but that's OK, too.