It used to be the dreaded phone call in the middle of the night. You would know instinctively something terrible had happened to someone.
Now it's the dreaded e-mail. I got another one last week. Of several I have received over the past couple of years. Another good friend has been diagnosed with cancer. I'm not sure that's how I'd like to tell my friends and family but it is certainly the most expeditious way.
I've been fortunate to have had a chance to visit with some of my friends before the visual toll of the disease took hold. I am glad those are the final memories I have.
It's a whole different issue when it's a stricken public figure who has stayed visible too long. The most obvious was Tammy Faye Messner on Larry King the very day before she died. I doubt there was a person anywhere who saw the program or the images from it that wasn't deeply disturbed.
Now there is Tony Snow. A good looking man in what should be the prime of his life. He looked it when he took on the job of press secretary for the President, but in the months that have followed we've been witness to his decline from the devastation of his treatment. Forget politics. He is a husband and a father. And we are witness to his decline. It is devastating.
Who's next? Elizabeth Edwards perhaps? She, as did Tony Snow, has thrown herself into living. She has been applauded and lauded for it. I admire them all for the tenacity and spirit they have shown. And I certainly pray that in each case the grim reaper will be denied. I'm not sure the odds are with me on that.
In a sense, however, each of these very public people are performing a great public service. They are putting a very public face on a devastating disease - no matter what form it takes.
I don't want any of them to stay too long at the dance, for as with anyone familiar to me I would like to remember them at their most robust.
But they do drive home the point that the biggest cancer on society that we have is cancer itself.