Tag Archives: living with cancer

I am not Bowie

david-bowie

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.

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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

The silver lining

peony-2

Everyone fears cancer. It’s the bugaboo lurking in the dark corner of the room; it’s what killed Aunt Lucy, and neighbor Kim, and the bald man who used to work in your office, and the kid in your child’s class. It’s the Big C. But as a person living with cancer, I suggest that it also has a silver lining that’s too often overlooked.

A cancer diagnosis makes you reassess the important things in life. It gives you permission to step out of the rat race and redirect your energy. It shows you the love that exists on all sides. It lets you revel in the loveliness of sunbeams, or newly-fallen snow, like a hippie blissing on LSD.

My silver lining is filled with love and beauty. Cancer can make each moment very similar to a mindfulness meditation. It enhances the importance of life itself. I relish each day that passes in a way I could not imagine back in the days when I assumed that life would go on and on indefinitely. Life is good, life is sweet; and all the more so after you realize that it is finite.

I’ve spoken with several people with cancer who agree that they have also found a silver lining in their lives. So why does our culture at large not publicize the fact that there can be an up-side to a cancer diagnosis?

Our culture has forced our idea of the disease into a one-size-fits-all mold of dread and fear. But not every cancer is alike, and not every diagnosis is a death sentence. More and more people are being successfully treated, or are managing to live for a while with the disease. Cancer is no longer something to speak of with hushed tones in the next room, out of hearing of the patient (or a dread fact to conceal altogether from the patient, as they used to do in the old days).

A cancer diagnosis is a serious matter, of course, not to be laughed at. My own form of cancer generally proves fatal within one to three years, even after chemotherapy. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t enjoy myself in the here and now. I believe that all cancer patients should be told that there is an up-side to be found. It’s baffling that emotional-health counseling is not yet automatically part of every cancer care package. Counseling is not considered to be an important and intrinsic part of the treatment, but is an extra that must be sought out, and paid for, by the patient.  Counselors should emphasize the fact that there CAN be a bright side to a diagnosis. This will make a huge difference to patients’ well-being.

It will be a huge step forward when each new cancer patient is shown how to uncover that silver lining and use it to best effect in his or her daily life. Good health begins with healthy attitudes!