Category Archives: Living well

I am not Bowie

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David Bowie was one of my favorite musical gods, don’t get me wrong. And I realize that he desired to lead a quiet life with his family in New York, unharassed by paparazzi and tabloids, which is why he hid the news of his illness from cancer from all but his very nearest friends and associates. But the press release announcing his death referred to his having fought a brave battle against cancer. Both things –hiding the diagnosis as though it were shameful, and viewing cancer as a battle or war to be fought – are completely contrary to the way I’ve treated my own cancer.

I’ve blogged before about not wanting to fight a war or wage a battle. I’m a lifelong pacifist who has watched too many friends fall to this disease, which they viewed as a struggle to be fought with every weapon at hand. Cancer-as-a-battle is a trope that I have turned my back on. And I don’t believe in cancer as a shame-to-be-hidden. I have told everyone I have encountered, cheerfully and without gloom, that I will soon be gone.

Instead of brooding darkly on my inability to change my fate in the face of this inexorable disease, and instead of hoping with false optimism that I’m going to live long enough for a cure to be discovered, I have done my best to maximize the satisfactions inherent in each additional ordinary day of life. I get up each morning knowing that I will probably not leave the house due to the frigid winter air mass outside, but finding happiness in simply being able to hang out all day in my lovely little ranch with its bright colors. I have a craft project I’m finishing up, and when it’s done I’ll start another one just to keep my hands busy. I have three books that I’m currently reading. I peruse the news of the day online. I look at Facebook, but I lurk silently more than I post anything. It’s just nice to see what my friends are up to, out in the world, untrammeled by disease.

Life is good, even the impaired life I’m currently leading. It’s good to still be able to eat. In fact it’s splendid news that I’m still able to eat, because this won’t last, so I make sure to enjoy each mouthful. I relish each minute of companionship when friends drop by to see me. I look out the windows when the winter sun emerges from behind cloud cover and marvel at the white sparkling quality of the snow on the ground and branches. I savor each minute of my life right now, and this is how I prepare for my impending death. Hopefully my death will be as good as my life for the past twelve years has been.

I’ve said it before, and will say it again now: despite having cancer, and despite the past twelve years being so generally excellent in general, the last twelve months of life with cancer have certainly been the happiest of my life so far in terms of daily happiness. I urge anyone else who has a new diagnosis to consider living well as the best way to respond to the challenge.

Bowie spent his last year dreading what was going to happen to him, and preparing music, drama and videos that all spoke of death and loss. If these things reflect the darkness and fear that turned over and over in his mind each day, then I am truly sorry for him. I only wish he could have experienced some of the happiness that I’ve discovered through cancer.

On food, and on nostalgia

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I stopped eating mid-morning on October 28.

It’s not that I dislike food. But due to the growth of an incurable tumor that’s blocking my bowels (sorry for these grisly details), food that enters my body at one end is now unable to exit at the other end. I won’t describe the long week that led up to the decision to stop eating; but I guarantee that if you had experienced that awfulness yourself, you would understand my choice.

Because there is no Death With Dignity law in my state – no option for physician-assisted-death – I am very calmly starving to death. I can drink water, but I can’t drink smoothies, shakes, etc. because my body perceives them as solid foods.

Oddly, I felt no hunger until nearly three weeks into my fast. The sensation of hunger is now quite different than it was in the pre-cancer days, when I’d get cranky if my breakfast was forty minutes late.

I perceive hunger nowadays as visual images of the foods I used to love in the long-ago days of childhood, along with memories of how delicious those foods were. The main image I see is that of my father’s soft-boiled eggs, which he would cook for my brother Jim and me on Sunday mornings. Dad readied the eggs and prepared the toast using his watch’s second hand to ensure that both parts of the meal would be ready simultaneously. I can still clearly see, smell, and even taste those memory-eggs, yolks broken and spreading out slowly over slices of golden-brown buttered toast, with fresh fruit to follow.

Because eating at this point has become purely theoretical, a harmless exercise in nostalgia, I’ve begun compiling a mental list of foods that I find pleasing, comforting, or simply delicious. Let’s begin with apples. Because I was born in upstate New York, the heritage variety Northern Spy was the first apple I ever tasted. To me, it’s how an apple ought to taste: packed with juicy flavor, both sweet and acidic at the same time.

Using Northern Spies, or the tartest substitute apples she could find, my mom baked exquisite apple pie throughout my childhood, featuring plump raisins and molasses. Later on when I worked as the baker at the old Uptown Café (1980-’81), I used her recipe. The wait staff told me that one regular Friday night customer used to drive down each week from Indianapolis just to eat my apple pie.

Another outstanding sweet childhood comfort food included homemade tapioca pudding. – But hold on! At this moment, a large number of readers out there are exclaiming “Tapioca? No way! YUCK!!!” based on their memories of the horrible “fish-egg” commercial pudding of their youth. But tapioca pudding is wonderful when made by hand and eaten warm from the stovetop; and because it’s mainly milk and egg, it’s modestly nutritious as desserts go. I always lessen the amount of sugar and use large farm eggs with orange-colored yolks for best results. Ambrosia of the gods! (Sound of lips kissing fingertips in ecstasy.)

Home fries are fabulous, especially when cooked in bacon grease, and hash browns are basically a different form of the same thing. Last year I achieved a state of perfection in my hash browns: evenly browned and without any tendency to stick to the pan. Here’s how to do it. While the frying pan is heating a 50/50 blend of cooking oil and butter, shred one to three potatoes (it’s great fun to use spuds of different colors: yellow, purple, white). Taking this moist lump between your hands, stand above the sink and squeeze out as much as possible of the starchy juice. Then spread the shredded potatoes evenly across the bottom of the hot skillet. Apply seasonings and then press flat with the spatula, frying gently. When the hash browns turn medium-brown around the edges, it’s time to lift and flip. Hash browns prepared this way will lift up in a uniform mass, much like a pancake.

Great meat foodstuffs range from humble to high. I will never forget the sandwich from an old-style Jewish deli (a real East Coast deli, not a yuppie deli with pretenses) consisting of a mountain of rosy corned beef piled between thick slabs of rye with tangy mustard. But then again, how can one say one has really lived until one has eaten pork chops complete with all the succulent crispy fat around the edges? But, more suitable for summer picnics, and situated at the opposite end of the meat spectrum, I remember mountains of Hebrew National bratwursts drenched in ketchup and mustard. Back in the day, Hebrew National’s dogs popped enticingly when you bit into them and they were far tastier than other brands like Oscar Meyer, Vienna Beef, etc. But like so many other things, they may have degraded in quality over the years, and now we’ve got a wide selection of artisanal sausage products. They’re undoubtedly made with superior meat, but still, I can’t forget those Hebrew National brats and hot dogs of my youth.

As for great vegetable dishes, I love mixed baby veggies sautéed together in butter at the opening of each summer. It’s heavenly to eat fresh cherry tomatoes warm from the sun, plucked off the vine and eaten right there in the garden. And there’s invariably a feral butternut squash vining and twining from the compost bin, the taste of which is incomparable.

For dairy dishes, give me a large, heavy portion of traditional cottage cheese/sour cream noodle kugel. Or homemade kefir, which I kept in a glass on the counter and regarded as a useful pet that lived in the kitchen. This, with a smudge of dark cherry concentrate stirred into it, was divine on a hot summer’s day. And of course I should mention The Milkshake Diet, which I spent some time on in the summer of 1984 when I was young and unemployed and living on less than two dollars a day. For breakfast: a leftover carrot or apple or banana. Nothing for lunch. Around mid-afternoon, when the hunger pains began to mount, I’d take my two bucks and go to the Indiana Sweet Shop for one of their enormous quart-size sludgy chocolate milkshakes, where the coldness of the huge drink would immediately induce a small localized headache in the center of my forehead. The caloric value of the milkshake meant that I would not be hungry again until the following morning’s breakfast. And thus, in a single meal, I had carbs, protein and fat, the three building blocks of nutrition (or so I assured myself).

I no longer eat any of these things. But I remember them with enormous fondness, and they are what is now sustaining me in these last weeks on earth. Who knows: if there is a Hereafter, I think perhaps I’ve earned a good seat at the table.

A grandmother’s lesson

Image courtesy "Buddha Victoria & Albert" by Michel wal - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Buddha_Victoria_%26_Albert.jpg#/media/File:Buddha_Victoria_%26_Albert.jpg
Image courtesy “Buddha Victoria & Albert” by Michel wal – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Buddha_Victoria_%26_Albert.jpg#/media/File:Buddha_Victoria_%26_Albert.jpg

Since my illness I have been overwhelmed by countless emails, cards and letters addressed in terms as reverential as though I was a guru or a great Bodhisattva. “Carrol, your courageous example has changed our lives,” these messages tell me over and over; “you cast a light that has inspired all of us. We love you.”

Who, me?!? I ask, confused. I’m just Carrol. What do I do that’s any different from other people? After pondering the question for months, I have some thoughts.

Although my family was not religious, we had strong ethical and moral standards. My grandmother taught me it was of the greatest importance to leave this world in a better condition than we found it, and if everyone did this we would eventually find ourselves living on an outstanding planet. She improved her part of the world by working as teacher, helping write the first zoning ordinances for her small Ohio town, and working to ensure schooling for the children of the Mexican migrant workers who passed through each summer to pick produce on nearby farms.

So, holding in mind the idea “leave this world better off than you found it”, let’s skip ahead in time to about fifteen years ago.

That spring morning I was cut off at a four-way stop on High Street by a male driver who sleazed through my right-of-way as though glued to the bumper of the car directly ahead of him. He revved his engine aggressively, flipped his middle finger and screamed at me from his car, face contorted with rage. I was too surprised to be angry; nor do I make it a habit to willingly encounter any man exhibiting obvious mental issues. So I went my way and he went his.

But later I began to wonder what kind of psychic aftereffects might be caused by a chance meeting with a man like this. Back when I was younger and had not yet developed sufficient emotional strength, such an encounter would have ruined my entire morning. An assault, whether physical or emotional, by a hate-filled person leaves ripples that spread, bounce against each other and spread again, ever widening. If this driver had behaved similarly to every susceptible person he came upon that day, he could have dragged down the emotions of dozens of other innocent drivers (not taking into consideration the feelings of his coworkers, or his unfortunate family). And these people in turn might have spread their frustration and hurt onward to other people.

I decided to try to counteract this man’s ripples of bad behavior with ripples of my own good behavior. After that day, each time I arrived at a stop sign, I would come to a full stop, make eye contact with the other driver, smile, and beckon him or her to go first. If I was out walking in the neighborhood I would smile and nod each time I passed another pedestrian. I made sure that I practiced compassion, courtesy, generosity and respect.

I can’t prove scientifically whether it worked or not, but it made me a lot happier and a lot less stressed. I found that I enjoyed smiling at strangers and seeing them smile back. After I became the “Homes” columnist I considered myself an ambassador for my newspaper. I did my very best to be friendly and courteous. kind and respectful to my interviewees. By doing these simple things I apparently launched a tsunami of gratitude and goodwill that has lasted years and kept me company throughout the long months of my illness.

I’m no guru, nor am I a Bodhisattva with all the answers. I’m an ordinary person who over the years appears to have succeeded in generating goodwill in quantities far more than sufficient to make up for the ill-will created by that baboon of a driver fifteen years ago.

I think the lesson of the fifteen-year-long experiment is this. All of us can be gurus; all of us can make our society better if we practice a simple formula. Don’t put yourself on autopilot and snarl back at people who snarl at you. Let it go, just ignore that other person’s discourtesy, and then go through the rest of the day intentionally practicing small acts of kindness and generosity toward others. You will become a happier person as a result, one who makes your own small part of the world a better place. My grandmother would be proud of you.

More thoughts on dying a good death

Everyone keeps telling me, “You don’t look ill! You look great!” I know they mean it as a compliment, but I DO have a belly full of cancer, and I definitely look better than I feel. In truth, I’ll probably be the best-looking corpse at the funeral home later this year.

I’m definitely on a long slow slide downward, with small upticks along the way during which I look and feel better. I spend long productive hours at home weaving, spinning, and writing, when not sidelined by drug-induced fogginess.

The palliative painkillers have certainly saved me a good deal of physical distress, but they create additional problems (some of them detailed already). As I observed in my earlier blog, dying people are offered handfuls of drugs to ease pain, to reactivate sluggish bowels, to quell anxiety, to fall asleep at night, but we generally are not offered non-drug alternatives that might help us maintain a clearer, cleaner and swifter end-of-life. Conscious death is a movement that has not yet taken hold here, so we have only the drug model to turn to.

Because Indiana is so backward, and because it has permitted medieval religious ethics to taint our laws on assisted dying, there is no death-with-dignity option for me. Because I do not want my death to be prolonged, I instead have drawn up a Do Not Resuscitate order that has been suitably witnessed and registered.  But here’s the question: in effect, don’t my painkillers constitute an artificial prolonging of life, since they keep me alive without allowing me to recognize how gravely ill I am? In ancient millennia, without pain relief, people at my point in the disease would simply curl up in a corner and refuse to eat until they shriveled up and died, but modern pain relief is now keeping me alive, and enabling me to eat small meals, since I can’t feel the majority of the pain in my belly.

Many people would at once say “That’s the benefit of modern medicine! It allows you to maintain your quality of life for weeks, even months, much longer than you would have had in a pre-industrial society.” Well, that quality-of-life issue is the sticking point. I’m still on a very low dose of prescription painkillers, and once my cancer has grown sufficiently to require higher dosages, my current quality of life will vanish as I become too groggy to write, weave, spin, or even take a stroll outside without a buddy to watch over my staggering feet. What then? And with my mind increasingly stupefied by narcotics, how can I expect to practice mindfulness meditation, self-hypnosis, or the daily attempts at maintaining a good attitude that have served me well until now?

Are these drugs really the best we can do for our dying ones? I don’t have a lot of answers, or a lot of wisdom; I’m just stumbling down a darkening passageway, commenting out loud as things slowly occur to me. But it seems to me that piles of drugs are not the best option for someone who wants to die peacefully, with dignity and intention, and without any nonsense.

Image by Chessley Sexton.
Image by Chessley Sexton.

Accessing Cancer’s Silver Lining

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[This public presentation was delivered at The Venue on July 21, 2015.]

My name is Carrol Krause and I was diagnosed last year with an incurable cancer. All the same, I’m leading a happy life right now, thanks to the upside of cancer. The upside, what you could call the silver lining, is something that very few people talk about, even though it deserves to be much better known.

The word “cancer” is almost always a word that makes people shudder. We associate cancer with pain and suffering, and death and loss. In our minds we think of cancer patients as wracked with pain, emaciated, weak, and bald.

But many of our assumptions about cancer are stereotypes that don’t necessarily hold up. Right now I’m living with Stage Four cancer, and look at me! I still feel good, I’m not yet in pain, and I’m extremely happy to be here.

I have learned that cancer doesn’t necessarily have to be something that’s bleak and dark. It’s a question of shifting my attitude to perceive the glass as half-full instead of half-empty. Instead of lamenting the fact that I’m going to die sooner rather than later, I’m busy enjoying the time I have left, to my fullest ability.

Each cancer patient, of course, approaches their situation in a way that’s completely unique and valid and right for them. I’m in no way suggesting that my way is superior to anyone else’s. It’s simply the way that I reacted to the biggest challenge of my life. I put it forth here in hopes that it might prove helpful to other people with cancer, or people who are experiencing other serious difficulties.

I responded to my cancer diagnosis by promising myself that I would live my remaining days to the best of my ability, and that I would enjoy every moment possible. I have remained active, I exercise daily and I continue to set projects and goals for myself. Although I quit my beloved job as “Homes” journalist for the Herald-Times, I continue to write blog posts.

My approach is based on having lost my two best college friends to lung cancer. Statistically, this is nothing unusual. Most of you have already experienced the loss of a friend, associate or family member from cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that approximately a third of all Americans now living will develop cancer in their lifetime.

But back to my friends. They were the women who knew me when I was young and fancy-free. They knew me better than anyone else on earth, other than my husband. So the way in which they lived and died could not help but make a very powerful impression on me.

One of these two friends reacted to her diagnosis with fear and anger. She basically turned her face to the wall and died. I can’t blame her, she had two small children and a career that she loved and had struggled for, and cancer came along and ruined everything. My other friend fought her cancer valiantly and chose to become a soldier in the struggle against her disease. She succeeded in winning a remission of a year and a half, against all odds, which is something she should have been happy about.

But I was horrified and grieved when she told me that she had never enjoyed a single day of that remission. Her disease hung over her head like a dark cloud. She constantly fretted about her health instead of enjoying herself. She knew it would come back and she would have to start up the fight all over again, so she lived in constant dread throughout her remission. And it DID come back, just as she had feared. She experienced increasing levels of panic until the day they took her to the hospital for the last time. When she finally accepted the fact that she was dying, and there was nothing else she could do about it, she whispered “hallelujah.” By this she meant: thank goodness I don’t have to fight any more. She never spoke again, and died soon after.

It made my heart ache to think that she never had a single joyous day with her husband during the entire time she had cancer.

Every person who loses a loved one to cancer is deeply affected by the loss. After my own diagnosis with cancer, I thought constantly about my two departed friends. And I realized I didn’t want to live and die like they did. It just isn’t my style to wrap myself in fear and anger like my first friend. And I didn’t want to become a soldier fighting ceaselessly against cancer either, like my other friend.

Here’s where we come to one of the most common stereotypes about cancer: cancer as a battle. You’ve probably noticed that the obituaries of people who die from cancer are almost always phrased as “John Doe died after a long battle with cancer,” or “Jane Doe died after bravely waging war on her cancer.” To me, this is a bad metaphor. It’s a trope. It’s a lazy habit that we automatically adopt without taking the trouble to consider alternative ways to look at cancer.

I myself tend toward pacifism. I don’t want to fight anything or anyone. Nor do I want to engage in battles or wage wars. I was a child during the Vietnam War. I lived through the war in the Gulf, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. I’ve also seen the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, and the War on Terrorism. (Those all went down “well,” didn’t they?) I have never known a successful war in my lifetime.

For me, the word “war” has come to mean a struggle that’s impossible to win. So if I were to adopt the metaphor of waging war against my cancer, it means it means I’m committing to a hopeless fight that’s lost from the start.

Therefore, instead of battling my illness I have chosen to embrace health instead. And my doctor and I are “treating” my cancer, not waging war against it.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are a number of other worn-out stereotypes and formulas clinging to the idea of cancer. For instance, many people think of cancer as something that’s intrinsically “other,” some kind of hostile being embedded within them, like in the movie “Alien.” Many cancer patients refer to their own cancers in a way that objectifies and separates them. They talk about “the cancer,” or “it,” as though it was something separate from their bodies. “The cancer isn’t responding to treatment. It requires another round of chemo.”

But my cancer isn’t an alien thing.  It’s “my” cancer. It’s part of me. It’s curled up delicately between the organs in my abdomen. It grew from the cells of my own body. I talk to it. I tell it “Hey, if you keep on growing, you’re going to kill both of us. But if you stop right now, we can both live on together for quite a while.” Even if it can’t hear me, or respond, I still regard it as part of my body. And because I claim ownership and possession of it, it helps me feel some degree of control over the situation, instead of being merely a helpless victim.

One of the most common formulaic things that many people do when they hear that someone has cancer is to ask “Why did this happen?” I hate to break it to you, but this is really a pointless question, and a waste of time, because in most cases there’s no easy answer. My cancer was not caused by an inherited genetic defect. It was caused by a random mutation which sprang up all by itself, perhaps with help from solar radiation, X-rays, the aging process, a virus, who knows? But I ate organic food for 20 years, exercised moderately every day and maintained a BMI within acceptable ranges. I had none of the known risk factors for ovarian cancer. This stuff simply happens.

Another stereotype, another assumption, is the idea that cancer is something that’s completely horrible, a disease from which you can derive no comfort whatsoever. It CAN be horrible, certainly, but it isn’t always. After all, more and more people today are living with cancer instead of dying immediately. I had major abdominal surgery followed by four or five months of pretty nasty chemotherapy.  It was not a walk in the park by any means, but I was very happy to be alive. I continued working my job with the paper, I kept on seeing my friends, and I scheduled my interviews for the period during each four-week chemo cycle when I had the most energy. And I even derived a grim satisfaction from the sight of the long scar on my belly, and the cancer port on my chest. “Hey,” I joked to my friends, “those kids are all out there getting tribal tattoos and piercings and big plugs in their earlobes, but I’ve got something in the way of body modification that’s WAY more bad-ass!”

So I started with a good attitude at the beginning of my treatment. But when I turned to the Internet for information and comfort during those first few months, everything I found there was indeed horrifying.

My particular kind of cancer is known as Malignant Mixed Mullerian Tumor, MMMT. It’s also called carcinosarcoma. Neither of those names inspires a feeling of confidence. It’s commonly referred to on the online cancer forums as “a beast” and “a monster.” It grows rapidly and there is no cure.

Ordinary ovarian cancer affects about 1.5% of all women. My cancer in turn represents about 2% of that 1.5%. There are probably fewer than 200 women with this disease alive in the US right now. And that’s not particularly comforting. Because it’s so rare, there’s very little research being done on it, because it doesn’t represent a source of profit for the pharmaceutical industry.

So I had to manufacture my own comfort somehow. I thought about my two friends and how I wanted a different path than theirs. I thought about how there is no cure for this disease, and ultimately, no hope for me. Then I began thinking about how I was alive instead of dead. And I went over in my mind all the things that make me happy, all the things that make me feel most myself.

One day I happened to be listening to the WFHB’s Golden Age Radio and I heard the old song “Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative”. Something clicked inside at the sound of those words. It became a sort of mantra for me, because it was exactly what I needed to do: eliminate the negative, and accentuate the positive. The positive was that I was still alive after almost dying before my condition was properly diagnosed.

So I resolved not to be angry or fearful. I also decided that I needed to accept the inevitable. After all, death is a necessary part of the life cycle, and to be born is to receive a death sentence. All of us learned during childhood not to sulk or get mad when we got fairly beaten in a game. We all have to lose a game sometimes, and fairness has nothing to do with it. It’s the luck of the draw, it’s the cards you happen to be dealt. We all know that our lives are finite, and this fact is simply not negotiable. So I felt it best to try to be a good sport about it all.

I have no intrinsic objection to the fact that at some point I need to get out of the way and leave the earth to other people. I have no desire to live on as a “brain in a bottle,” as one or two of my friends hope to become. To me, the idea of being stored inside a mass of circuitry, unable to walk in the sunlight or smell honeysuckle on the breeze, THAT would be a cruel death indeed, a living torture. I’m very happy that I was born, happy that I am here; I will not file an objection to having to leave when my time is up.

So I accepted the fact that my life was going to end sooner rather than later. And to my surprise, I found that the act of acceptance turned out to be extremely calming.

When I told my surgeon that I accepted whatever happened, and was not panic-stricken or fearful, he was impressed. He shook my hand and said “Congratulations! You have just skipped to the finish line of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Dealing with Grief.” (Those stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.) So, after leading an ordinary life for 56 years, it appears that I have finally become an enlightened being!

Here’s where I come to the Silver Lining. I must have done something right, because to my surprise, and without consciously intending to do so, I find that living each day with cancer has become far more delightful. I wake up happy just to be alive. I never gripe about the weather nowadays, because whether it’s hot and humid, or cold and sleeting, I’m just happy to see it at all.

And I feel things more keenly nowadays. It’s a lot like being young again. Think of how deeply children are touched to the core by their senses and their experiences. When we were young, everything was intensely new and fresh and wonderful. We thrilled to the sensations of our young thoughts and feelings. And then we got older, and now we find that we’re bolting our food down without really tasting anything beyond the first bite. We skim the headlines instead of reading the articles in depth. We drive with cruise control instead of really paying attention to the road. We make assumptions without waiting for all the facts to come in first. And slowly, bit by bit, this is how we lose the ability to savor the little lovely things that surround us.

Well, cancer reconnected me to those little things. I find tears of joy swimming in my eyes simply when I hear the sound of an orchestra playing, or when I gaze at Monet’s paintings at the museum, or when I look at a new baby. It’s exquisite to catch the aroma of flowers in the garden, or to see a wonderful sunset. I get really excited nowadays just seeing cottonwood fluff floating through the air, backlit by the sun. To see and feel things this way again, after so many years of not really paying much attention, is incredible. It’s a gift. And this gift is definitely worth a death sentence. This is the Silver Lining of cancer.

Despite everything that’s happened to me, I still consider myself to be a very fortunate person. I love my family, I love my friends, I loved my job for eleven years. And I actually achieved my childhood dream of becoming a writer and an author! Despite having cancer, I’m very happy with the way my life has turned out.

I spoke recently with a friend about all this. Now, this friend has had a hard time in life, and she has many regrets. She’s currently working a minimum wage job in a rural area with no cultural resources and she’s saddled with massive credit card debt. She told me mournfully, “But Carrol, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. If I got cancer right now, I would be pretty depressed about my life.”

She was thinking that her glass was mostly empty, simply because she didn’t have the stereotypical markers of American “success”: a picture-perfect house, a happy family, and lots of money. Well, she’s not alone. Most people nowadays in this new economic and political environment don’t have a glass that’s brimming over. Most of us have glasses that are only partly full. And because of my cancer, my metaphorical glass is a lot less full than other people’s. My glass doesn’t have money inside it, either. But my glass does contain a lot of glowing sunsets and cottonwood fluff.

My friend has a lot more going for her than she thinks she does. She’s going to live longer than I will, for starters. She is also a gentle, kind, and compassionate soul, which in an ever more callous world is something to be very proud of. Despite having no training, she has become one of the best nature photographers I know, someone whose work is worthy of being in National Geographic. When she gets home from work each day, she takes long walks through the nearby woods and along the river, and these walks recharge her emotional batteries and refresh her spirituality. She has a beautiful dog who arrived at her door as a starving stray, and who gives her unswerving companionship, love, and comfort. She collects beautiful small objects that have meaning to her. And she has a large network of friends who care deeply about her wellbeing. She’s got a glass that’s definitely at least half-full, if not more.

My point is this: When times are hard, or when life itself is dwindling, we all need to look at our glass again, and re-envision it as half-full instead of half-empty, and then think of all the wonderful things that are represented inside it. To do this requires an adjustment of attitude, but it is well worth the time and effort. The contents of that half-glass can definitely pull you out of depression and renew your life.

It’s good for all of us to consider the many things in life that give us joy. All of us possess inner riches which have nothing to do with money or conventional markers of financial success. To have loving friends, to engage in a creative activity, to take long walks in the woods, to simply grow a garden: these things are priceless, and beyond the value of money.  These things thrill our hearts; these things reward us. These are the things that truly make us happy.

When life is stressful, or when life itself is nearing its end, most of us aren’t going to reach over to caress our checkbook and credit cards. We will reach out instead to our loved ones, we will cuddle our pets, we will admire those orange sunsets, and we will hug and kiss the people who inspire us with good feelings. These things make us human; these are the things that make us more humane. When we’re at our lowest ebb, these things will give us new inspiration and emotional strength. And this is why I am filling the remainder of my life with flowers, birds, walks, conversations, weaving and spinning, meals with loving friends.

Lastly, having cancer has taught me the importance of expressing my gratitude. I am indescribably grateful to be able to see and feel things so keenly again. I am also grateful that I’m not in worse physical condition than I am despite being Stage Four. I’m grateful to my friends and my family, and for their ceaseless love and support. I’m grateful to the many people who prayed for me.

I’m grateful to be able to walk each day, and to inhale the sweet scent of my lilies in bloom. I’m grateful to have seen one of the best firefly displays since my childhood. I’m grateful to have seen my blueberry bushes bent double to the ground with the most massive crop I can recall. And I’m grateful to all of you for coming here today.

It might seem odd, but I found that the very act of expressing gratitude in turn makes me feel even more grateful. So each day I mentally go over the many things I’m grateful for, because in some strange way, doing this nourishes my soul.

As the old man said in the Monty Python skit, “I’m not dead yet!” Despite being Stage Four, I’m still alive, and newly awakened to the joy that surrounds me. I’m avoiding the old tropes and stereotypes that only hold me back and make me feel worse. I even planted a garden this spring, not knowing whether I would make it until the harvest. But here I am!

My hope is that our outmoded stereotypes about cancer can be replaced with more wholesome attitudes that will truly benefit patients. I feel very strongly that each person who gets a cancer diagnosis should be able to obtain some form of emotional health support. And this can be done by helping new cancer patients to understand that there IS a silver lining to cancer, a beautiful one! It’d be great if each new cancer patient was shown how to focus properly on the half-full glass that they’re holding.

Even when a glass is half-empty, there’s still a good drink remaining. And even when it’s nearly gone, when you get down to those last few sips…if you maintain a good attitude, those could be the best sips of all.

Carpe diem

IMG_2595Despite having a terminal disease, I’ve experienced some of the greatest happiness of my life during the past year. I feel as though I am young again, with each day filled with keenly-felt wonder and enjoyment.

I made a conscious decision at the beginning of my experience with cancer not to let my diagnosis get me down. Although I can’t change what has happened to me, I CAN choose how I respond to the situation.

Statistically, I’m likely to live one to three years with this carcinosarcoma, half of which is already gone. If I have only X number of months remaining, then it makes sense to enhance my experience of those remaining months as best I can. There’s no point sinking into depression and wasting the time that’s left, or harboring thoughts like “this is SO unfair” or “my life is ruined”.

Instead, I do everything I can to enhance my enjoyment of each day. I traveled to Italy for a last adventure, and I regularly spend time with my closest friends and with my family. Projects keep me busy and engaged, and I’ve been enjoying a great burst of expressive creativity.  

Each day, as I’ve done throughout my life, I record thoughts in my daily journal. Each day I spend half an hour or so in the yard and garden, examining plants, pulling weeds, looking at the sky, and experiencing the sun and breeze and humidity. Each day I walk for 30 to 60 minutes, either on the treadmill if weather is bad, or outside if weather is good. Lately I’ve been identifying The Most Beautiful Thing of each day, or sometimes The Coolest Thing I’ve seen during the day.

For example, The Most Beautiful Thing two days ago was a Siberian iris bud that was ready to open the following day. It was tightly furled like a little umbrella, deep purple, beautifully delineated, and with a most perfect spiral line circling down from its velvety top point. The Most Beautiful Thing the day before that was a gigantic old catalpa tree with a massive trunk, a perfect shape, and covered with white orchid-like flowers. The Coolest Thing this morning was spotting a mass of tiny gnats all dancing in a transparent cloud that glowed as it was backlit by the sun, and then noticing as I rode in the car’s passenger seat that countless similar glowing clouds of gnats were hanging suspended above lawns, like shimmering ghostly globules, all the way between May’s Greenhouse and the city to the north.

Another Cool Thing: spotted just after sunset, anticrepuscular rays in the sky caused by the vanished sun shining past clouds on the western horizon.
Another Cool Thing spotted just after sunset. Anticrepuscular rays in the sky are caused by the vanished sun shining through clouds on the western horizon.

Lately I’ve been counting rabbits on my walks outside. The city always has an explosion of its rabbit population at this time of year, and for the past two years I’ve counted all the rabbits I’ve passed during my daily perambulations. I take care to follow a circular route so I don’t count any rabbits twice by accident. Last year’s one-day record was 19 rabbits, but yesterday I saw 20! Bad news for gardeners, but fun for me. And it’s not even really about the rabbits themselves. Instead, the act of looking for rabbits enables me to see things that I normally might overlook, like landscaping in a side yard, trees in flower, flagstone hardscaping, deer flitting across lawns, birdfeeders, etc. And by looking at these things I often spot The Most Beautiful Thing Of The Day, or The Coolest Thing. And doing this has helped enhance my life enormously.

We can’t SEE if we aren’t looking. And we can’t FEEL if we don’t open ourselves up to experiences.

As Elmer Fudd famously said, “Shhhh! I’m hunting wabbits.”

elmer fudd