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Tuesday, November 2, 2021

In Other Words: Life Lessons Learned After A Three Year Battle With Cancer

An early chemo session.

Today marks one year of clean scans for cancer. As many of you know, I have battled lymphoma for the past three years. I underwent almost a year of chemo, a CAR-T transplant, and targeted radiation. It was not pleasant. I was sick for a long time. 

There was one night shortly after the transplant that the pain was so great that I prayed to die. But when I awoke the pain was still bad but not quite as bad. I didn’t pray that again. I learned to be thankful that I don’t always get what I want.

The disease and the accompanying stress forced me to confront death and physical limitations. As a result, I learned a few things along the way. I became acutely aware of the truth in the Zen saying, “Whatever is before you is your teacher.” I learned that I am capable of doing much more. I learned that adversity is an opportunity to learn. I learned there is a helping hand everywhere. I learned that a change in perspective, perhaps as little as one step to the side, is all we need. Here are a few other lessons I learned. 

Do not fear death. I don’t want to die, but I have accepted the inevitability of it. I can only hope that I can release my earthly bonds with grace and dignity when the time comes. We fear moving into an unknown. That is, after all, why so many New Year’s resolutions fail. At some point we have to take a leap of faith. It wasn’t easy to be that ill and to prepare a will and articulate my final wishes, to plan to donate my body to science, and take care of other legal issues, deal with insurance issues, as well as advocate for my medical care. It was, ultimately, a good exercise in focusing on what is important in life - relationships, not prestige, power, or money. 

Survivor’s guilt is real but it should not be frightening. Why did I survive and not others? I lost six people to cancer this past winter and almost that many to COVID-19 this year and I feel awful about it.  We want to know why one survives and another does not. We want answers. We want direction. We want meaning and purpose. Well, I don’t know any of those answers, but I know that if I choose the direction of my life, then purpose and meaning reveal themselves. I often told my students that you either act or you will be acted upon. I learned that I must somehow make the best of the time I have been granted. My father and his father died when they were fifty. I am well beyond that, but I have just as many questions now as I did as a teen looking at the dark and forbidding future of adulthood. But now that I have lived that part of my past’s future, I can move forward with less fear.  Darkness is no longer frightening. It’s weirdly comforting. 

First day of the two week CAR-T isolation.

Everyone is battling something so be kind. In fact, next to planting a tree, the best thing you can do is to plant kindness. So drop a seed of kindness and watch it grow. 

We need each other to survive and thrive. Life is not about competition. We advance through cooperation. “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,” wrote John Donne. We are all connected in an intricate web of life. We become less when one part of the web is damaged or lost. We are part and parcel of one larger unit and we are obligated to help each other if we want to live. 

There is no better time to be sick than right now.  Science has never been better. And it gets better all of the time. I probably should have died years ago but medical advancements rescued me and presented me with more life opportunities. I’ve learned that there are two types of medicine — the type that doctors put into my body and the type that friends put into my heart. Both are valuable.

Complaining is useless. You have to do something. Even though I was sick I was still able to write and to help organize public events like Earth Day. After I came home from the transplant, the doctors told me to walk every day. It hurt. My balance was off. I listed to one side. A foot sometimes dragged a bit. I had difficulty breathing. Every muscle ached. I looked like a zombie from The Walking Dead. It took 45 minutes to walk the ten houses to watch Johnson school demolished and it took another 45 minutes to walk home. But I would not complain and I would not cry. I laughed thinking about Bill Murray in What About Bob as he repeated the mantra “Baby steps. Baby steps” to help him move forward. I didn’t complain when I came home from a chemo treatment to find the kitchen ceiling collapsed from a leak in the bathroom above. Don’t complain about your life or what you see or read. Do something about it. Complaining is for those who feel powerless or weak. As bad as I was, I was never powerless. 

Be grateful. I try to express my gratitude every day. I’m not rich; I’m not poor. I’m not the fastest or slowest. I am not the strongest or weakest. I am not a beauty but I’m not a beast. I sit atop the Bell Curve and I’m okay with that. The view is pretty good from up there and I am grateful for that. I am grateful for friends, family, and community. The world is far better than I imagined and I am grateful to be able to be a part of it.  

There is no room for pity. Never ask “Why me?” Instead ask “What does this have to teach me?” Pity is a self defeating and ultimately unproductive emotion. I didn’t want pity. I needed help, though, and I accepted that. 

Accept the help. Linda Stapleton, who did an amazing job of organizing all of my volunteers, told me that when people offer their help, that is an expression of love and to always let that love in. That was a tough lesson for my bullheaded self to learn but it turned out that she was so right. My heart is fuller as a result. Ask for help. It’s not a weakness.   

Life without hope is not much of a life. The specter of death is always present. It lurks in the corner waiting to step forward to tap me on the shoulder, but until that point, I will try to shine the light of hope. 

And now I have this reprieve, this gift of time. What do I do with it? What good can I do? I still have a lot to learn and a lot to give. And so do you. And we can do this — together. 

Photo by Nick Viltrakis

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