Reflections on Having Cancer

In my brief journey with cancer I have discovered a few things about pain, discouragement, and the backdrops against which we live our lives. One thing I have learned is that pain demands our full attention. In the days following my surgery a great deal of effort was required to avoid pain. A sneeze or cough triggered a searing, tearing scream inside the region of my body being held together by internal stitches. Sitting down or standing demanded the skills of a surgeon and the patience of a Zen Master. During that first week I was keenly aware of a peace God had given me, but I was also aware my pain was one of the instruments of that peace. I was not concerned with having cancer. The mental energy siphoned off by the pain left little resources for self-pity. As long as every twitch might result in that searing pain, there was little room to contemplate my pending prognosis and treatment options. I discovered pain to be an analgesic for fear and depression. Pain is ironically a direct link to life and the desire to live. I recognize there is a point of unbearable pain that demands an end to the pain even if that means the termination of life, but pain wed to the hope of an end to pain intensifies the desire for abundant, pain-free life.

A second thing I have discovered is that a life-and-death crises is a powerful tool for transforming the backdrop of our soul, the stage upon which we live our lives. I cannot say with certainty, but I have a strong sense the old is passing away and a new vision of who I am is emerging. The shock of cancer is moving my focus from a present that is overloaded with thoughts of what must be done and a past burdened with some thoughts of what might have been to the future that lies before me. What can I do with the remainder of my life however long it might be? Don’t get me wrong, at this point I am very optimistic about having a very long life, but cancer has refocused how I see the present and the future.

It may be true that you can only live in the present, but you will live toward the past, the present, or the future. Pain and disappointment incline the soul toward the past, ever longing that things had been different. Responsibilities and/or self-centeredness incline the soul toward the now, seeking a sense of fulfillment or momentary satisfactions and pleasures. Hope tilts the soul toward the future, creating dreams of possibilities and refreshing the currency of eternity.

I long ago learned through experience and observation that pain and disappointment if left unchecked will lead to despair. Once despair has taken hold bitterness, while not inevitable, ever beckons like the sirens of ancient lore from the rocks along depression’s shore. If by grace one rejects the lure of the deceptive and chooses life over death, there remains the struggle to return to the voyage. Once locked in the battle to sail back out to sea away from certain destruction the storm itself might become the universe, the backdrop against which we live and from which we cannot seem to escape. Life is there constrained by the struggle to survive, to produce, to provide, to protect and that without the luxury of the hope of ever arriving at a calm and plenteous port. In short, it is all too easy to allow the responsibilities and disappointments of life to define our reality. Perhaps I am merely describing the melodrama known as middle adulthood.

Into the routinized tempest of my life has come a single word, “cancer,” a Cyclops from the deep that has plucked me out of the familiar struggles of rowing against the wind and planted my feet on a different battlefield. This is an altogether dissimilar struggle, one that redefines my very existence, shocks me out of my compulsion to live viz-a-viz past disappointments and present responsibilities. In this new arena I am forced into an all-together different present, one that peels the mask off of the urgent and puts the spot light on the important. Yes, the threat of cancer to shorten life calls forth a new opportunity to fully live toward the future.

For good and/or evil, cancer is now the backdrop against which I live my life. I am strangely thankful for this new drama. It is like starting over, only now the finish line is within sight. Responsibilities, disappointments, and daily routines may have robbed me of the full aroma of life without my even being aware of it. My attention may have been too much on that which was pressing and that which was passing away. Now the stakes are infinitely higher. All that has gone before was but training for this part I now play. I once again get to fight against despair. Midlife may indeed limit our hopes to merely surviving, to one day being known as having overcome. I strangely find myself now in a different place; I am renewed and cannot be satisfied with any label less than being now “more than a conqueror.”

Tomorrow, I will receive a detailed pathology report, a prognosis, and a proposed treatment plan. I am hopeful to hear it was stage one seminoma and that they believe they got it all. No other treatment is recommended at this time. That would be a great gift from God. If it is so, I will still ever be conscious of my new identity. If it is not so, I am still determined to be victorious in the manner I fight this fight.