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.

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

10 Replies to “Cancer Lessons”

  1. Would that everyone could greet sickness and death as you have. Thank you for sharing your clear seeing with us. May you be well, may you be peaceful, may you be free from suffering!

  2. Sometimes life and death is literally the practice we have to practice. How fortunate you are to have walked the Buddha path for so long and to have learned about dharma and so many other things. I am confident all your experience and knowledge, as well as your own natural spirit and intelligence, will see you through whatever sufferings you face now or in the future.

    When the sadness you feel in your chest goes away some, you’ll probably realize that your glass is still 100% full, for death is an experience that comes with life. It’s part of life. You know that.

    You said it yourself, don’t waste your precious human life, and so, although the darkness in the cup has changed the taste, nothing can change the fact that the cup is your life and you have the choice to drink with as much joy as possible or with bitterness and regret.

    I am drinking with you and I raise my glass in your direction and say, “A votre santé.” Be well.

  3. Thanks, Katherine and David, for the metta wishes and the toast. David, of course you’re right. The glass is always 100% full.

    I am usually not particularly worried about my prognosis. The oncology check-ups bring up all this old stuff for a few days, and then things go back to normal, whatever normal is. (After a cancer diagnosis, there’s a new normal.) In any case, the “stuff” that gets brought up is not entirely unwelcome. Mortality reminders are useful grist for practice! And there’s an opportunity for a greater opening up and acceptance of all the vulnerability, sadness and fear that are part of the process of imagining possible future disability, dependence, or pain, as well as the recognition that none of that has happened and probably won’t happen. At least not in the way it’s imagined. Then one can see all those thoughts for what they are: empty projections. And one can direct metta towards oneself for the inevitability of being human and being taken in by all these projections once again!

    Thanks for your concern and encouraging thoughts. You guys are great!

  4. you say “Do what is necessary in the moment. Each moment. Every moment. Moment after moment. It’s all good.”

    AMEN!!!! I have just recently witnessed the death of a close friend i have known for about 11 years go through dying by cancer. It took her about 2 years until finally she was told that the therapy was not working. She leaves behind a wonderful husband and a 16 year old boy. I saw her change significantly from a type A working women, to a sensitive, caring, live every moment as if it was your last type of person.
    Sickness, old age, death…..the things we can not avoid..them and taxes. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your loss and your illness. It is a reminder that every moment in this bizarre existence, to be alive and take nothing for granted.

  5. Thank you for the open sharing. Listening to others share our common struggle with our own fears helps us anticipate them. And the reminder of our limited time, as you state well, is central to the dharma.

  6. I thank you for this inspiring article and hope that you continue to be healthy and well. My beloved mother passed away a month ago from cancer and it has been a really rough road–a year and a half since diagnosis. I identify with a lot of what you mentioned, particularly the issue of family medical leave from your job. I had some struggle with that at times (it wasn’t always encouraged at the onset), but did what I had to do for my mom. I wish I could have taken even more time off before she got really sick, but when she did, I, thankfully, took off completely to be by her side and do feel like the “I” began to dissipate. I wish the “I” dissipated even more, but felt the closest I ever have to her when I was in her service. I appreciate your reflections on this as I try to forge a new path without my mother in this world (this is inconceivable to me). I am starting to lean on Buddhism more these days to help me through this. I wish I did more so when she was alive, but did try to live in the present moment for her. I send you positive thoughts and hope that you’re faring well. All the best to you and your family.

    1. Sorry to hear about your mother, Chris, but I’m glad you were able to be present with her towards the end. Thanks for sharing your experience and insights! May your heart and ability to be present continue to ripen! All my best.

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