Cancer Lessons


Passing by
Silver and gold sari
Covered corpse
Hip 20 year old
Dharamsala girl
“Tibetans say
When you see dead
It’s good luck.”
“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.

The Great Matter of Life and Death

Life is like getting onto a small boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.”  -Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

This past week I attended two funerals, one for an an uncle, one for a cousin.

This coming week I’ll be attending a birthday party for one of my grandchildren.

My family shrinks as elders depart, grows as children enter the world.

This week was also the autumnal equinox: the end of summer, the beginning of autumn.

The world ceaselessly instructs us in impermanence.  Nothing remains the same because there is no “thing.” Every “thing” is always a process in transition to becoming some “thing” else.

When I was young, my extended family seemed to be a stable, unchanging entity.  It was filled with uncles, aunts, and cousins. Two decades went by with only minimal change.  It felt like I could count on it forever.

Now all the uncles are gone.  Every one.

Now all the aunts are gone except for one.  She is ninety-four and suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease.

And now two of my own generation, my cohort of cousins, are gone too.

But those cousins have had children, and their children have had children.  One branch withers, another blossoms.

My body also gives me daily lessons in impermanence.  It reminds me of it when I take my insulin for my diabetes.  It reminds me of it when I visit my oncologist for my six-month check-up.  It reminds me of it when I wake in the middle of the night to pay obeisance to the prostate gods.   Ceaseless change.

Four years ago my first wife, the mother of my children, passed away after enduring the ravages of cancer.  Two months before she died, our son’s wife gave birth to twins.  One warm, bright April morning my wife and I took a cab from the emergency room at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center where we had spent another traumatic night to go to the neonatal ICU at Beth Israel Hospital for a first look at our beautiful new grandchildren.  Was there ever a day more filled with intense, contradictory emotions?

Now I’m remarried, and my new wife brings me the joys of her children and their wives and children.  My family contracts and expands.

This is what I want you to know.  We had no beginning.  We are part of a ceaseless chain of events that began, this time around, with the Big Bang.  We came from our parents’ DNA, and they from their parents’ DNA. The effects of our actions reverberate throughout time and ripple throughout history.  We are part of the vast tapestry of being.  In the absolute view of things, we have no end.

Therefore, O Sariputra, in emptiness there is no…. decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping…   (The Heart Sutra)

But from the relative point of view we have an end. The fact of our impermanence, of death-in-life, can sharpen our awareness of the limited time we have available to make use of our precious human lives.

Cambridge Insight Meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg tells the story of meeting Tara Tulku Rinpoche who repeatedly fingered the beads of his mala while reciting a mysterious mantra.  When Larry asked the meaning of the mantra, the lama replied “I’m going to die. I’m going to die.”  We all need reminders to focus on using our life wisely. When we realize our time is limited we can ask ourselves how we really want to spend it.  What’s really important?  We want our loved ones to know how much we care about them.  We want to improve things around us.  We want to leave something of value to those who come next.

As Dogen Zenji reminds us:

Life and death are of supreme importance.  Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.  Each of us should strive to awaken.  Awaken!  Take Heed! Do not squander your life!

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