I am an anecdote. In the language of modern medicine, this means I don’t count. Medical statistics disregard me because, in 2001, statistically given three to six months to live, I disregarded both the statistics and the recommendations for chemo and radiation therapy. This morning, instead of lying in the predicted hospital bed or grave, I went surfing. Afterward, I cared for five dying patients whose cancers were less advanced than mine had been — all of whom had been given a better chance of survival than I had.
Why am I still alive and surfing and volunteering at hospice with greater joy than ever before in my life, when so many other cancer patients with far better prognoses are suffering and dying?
Death is the enemy, the villain, the gray-cloaked, grinning skull — the symbol of our destruction. When we buy into this manipulation, we prime ourselves to become our own worst enemies when we’re sick.
When we deny the unavoidable normality of illness, ageing, pain, and death, the amygdala, the fear center of our brain, sends out stress hormones and neurochemicals that over time undermine and weaken the already stressed body.
We literally create our very own, highly personalized, physical and mental hells. What tools can we use to counteract such a juggernaut as our death-denying culture?
Thanks to my teachers — the dying — my knowledge of the passionate tango of life and death is so “to the bone” that, in 2001 when I stood before the lighted X-ray display panel and looked at the very large, very obvious cancer tumor that had arisen over only six weeks and was extending its crab claws through most of my left breast, and reaching straight down to strangle my heart in a matter of weeks, I was very calm. My thought was, “My turn up at bat.” It is possible that what has kept me alive is to be found in that calm moment. Here is what I knew and felt:
1. I knew I was going to die.
2. I was not afraid.
3. I did not cry.
4. I needed a little time to set my life in order and prepare my daughter.
5. I wasn’t going to use chemotherapy or radiation, even if that meant I died within days.
No waiting in doctors’ offices. No listening to someone else’s opinions about what my body was doing or when it would stop doing it. Nothing was going to interfere with the fun I was going to have with my 13-year-old daughter. I had to get all the junk out of my head right now and LIVE, really live and savor each physical, sensual moment left to me.