Cancer Lessons

Varanasi

Passing by
Silver and gold sari
Covered corpse
Dawa
Hip 20 year old
Dharamsala girl
says:
“Tibetans say
When you see dead
It’s good luck.”
“Why?”
“Makes people pray.”

-Rick Fields

I got to hear Rick Fields only once.  It was at the Buddhism in America Conference in Boston in 1997, two years before he died of lung cancer.  The above poem is from his book entitled Fuck You Cancer and Other Poems, published by Crooked Cloud Projects in 1999.  (Rick was also the author of a history of American Buddhism entitled How The Swans Came to the Lake.[1] You could always count on Rick to come up with a good book title.)  I admired Rick’s openness and courage in his writing about his battle with cancer.

Many of us are able to go forward each day maintaining our illusion of immortality, but I have the good luck to have biannual mortality reminders.  Every six months I return to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to have my oncologist prognosticate about my future.  Last week he again gave me a clean bill of health.  I asked him about the risk/benefit ratio of continued chest x-rays every six months, and he advised me to continue them, reminding me I had a 20% chance of metastasis to the lungs.  I should have been happy that my odds for remaining cancer-free were 80%, but instead my mind glommed onto the 20% figure.  My glass was 20% empty.

Five years ago my first wife began the one-year cancer journey that would take her life.  I had the gift of spending that year in her intimate company.  I was fortunate that my job allowed me family leave to accompany her to her surgeries, chemotherapy and radiotherapy visits,  ER visits and re-hospitalizations, and in the end, when she could no longer be alone, to be constantly by her side until she died peacefully at home.  We were never as close as we were in that last year.  It’s as if the “I” disappeared and there was only me in service of her.  Despite the agony, drama, and tears, there was a genuine happiness to be able to be there for her and make her journey as easy as possible.  She was ready for death when she finally passed on; going on living was a torment.  And I was ready for her to go too.  How could I wish her to go on given how things were?   She died surrounded by family and friends.  Our daughter, an artist/musician, brought her band members to sing to her mother as she lay in coma, and later to sing at her funeral: “May the Circle Be Unbroken,” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

My formal meditation practice took a hit that year: no time for retreats, no ability to keep a regular schedule.  But being mindful of each moment together and focussing on meeting her needs was my Buddhist practice.  I didn’t need anything else.  It felt like all the years of practice up until then had been preparation for meeting that moment with equanimity, no complaints, and a good heart.  Do what is necessary in the moment.  Each moment.  Every moment. Moment after moment.  It’s all good.

Now I have my own cancer journey.  A year and a half ago I was diagnosed with a rare cancer, a liposarcoma.  My journey is easier than my first wife’s, my surgery just a walk in the park compared to hers.  So far no recurrence, no chemo, no radiation:  Just watchful waiting.

What do I do with my glass 20% empty?  It’s a blow to my ego.  There’s a heavy feeling of sadness in my chest that goes along with it.  There are questions I push out of my mind because now it is not time for them: “What would I choose to do if there was a recurrence?”

But cancer has a lesson to teach: “Don’t waste your precious human life,” it says.  Do what is necessary in the moment.  Each moment. Every moment. Moment after moment.  It’s all good.

This is the Dharma, plain and simple.

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  1. [1] Fields, R. (1986). How The Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America.  Shambhala: Boston.