What Now?

Dear Friends,


Writing these reflections has heightened my awareness of how uncertain a task it is to honestly describe one’s emotions. It’s not that I wish to deceive; it’s just that I sometimes wonder if I am expressing what I want my feelings to be, rather than being able to admit to what they truly are.  I do my best; but the question lurks in the background, eventually to be better understood.

As of this morning, there have been scheduled for me, a battery of one-year follow-up tests. I’m writing these thoughts, intentionally, before undergoing the tests. I’m curious how I will feel about these reflections after the test results are returned.


August is an auspicious month for me. It is the month of my birth. In the past, I know I often regarded August with a kind of guilt. Here, came I, into the world, demanding attention and the resources from a more turbulent August. Men and women, that August, were giving up their lives by the score, (even on the very day of my birth) precisely to defend the freedoms, discoveries and self-determinations that were my exclusive self-centered preoccupations as a newborn. I recall one family story—retold laughingly, to be sure; but only many years after the apparent distress/delight of it. My Father had apparently—by some, not small, miracle—been able to acquire a small can of Vienna Sausages in our exile in wartime Scotland. He and my Mom determined to share with me, their infant toddler, a small portion of this precious windfall of scarce protein… only to watch me—all delightedly oblivious of their sacrifice—voraciously gulp down one after another of the compact little cylinders of nutrition, until the very last one was gone. Hearing that story as a teen, I found it difficult to believe I could have given my parents any delight or joy at the miracle of my birth. But they always and consistently communicated just that: that I (and my Sister, who came later—in a more halcyon time—into their lives) were the thrilling individuals who blessed their own lives with a particular joy. They wondered at us and nurtured us, as our personalities emerged and we unfolded as human beings under their good care. What a gift it is to be so loved (despite gulping down a whole tin full of Vienna Sausages!) How wondrous that their love continues and sustains me long after their ministry on this Earth is long over.

Life continues to be a gift. Yet, I also think of this August as the anniversary of my cancer (even though the discovery of my cancer actually was made a little earlier, in June 2011). I’ve just been scheduled for a follow-up colonoscopy and a series of “chest-through-pelvic” CT scans (with little input, I might add, from me… It was just “scheduled, period.” [So,” just show up, Chet!”]). I celebrate the period of a year—which, as Monica explains, “I mostly ‘missed.'” I dare say, with not a little justification, that it was mainly she, and my children, who suffered the greatest anxiety and loss during this past year. My neuropathy has changed many of my habits and behaviors, and continues to inhibit me and draws unwanted attention to itself.

I have been humbled (and nurtured, as well) by my friends. I’ve always recognized that I’ve been blessed to have friends; but never had realized, as much as now, that none of them are alike! Each has personal reactions. Every one responds, fears, grieves and consoles very individually and differently. Every one, in ways that would be intolerably embarrassing for me, were it not for the unguarded sincerity and candidness they each have displayed towards me. I have a shelf-full of amazingly diverse books given and recommended to me, several of which I’ve already enjoyed, and others I expect to enjoy. (The books, in their own right, deserve to be a subject of a future blog posting.) During this past year, too, I have lost a dear friend who was diagnosed at the same time as I, but with a more virulent cancer than mine. I only came to know him more closely through our common trek with our unbidden cancerous companion.

I am looking forward, as always, to the year to come.  For quite some time, I’ve been fond of pointing out that each year I celebrate, turns out to have been the “best year of my life”. It ever must be so if I perceive each and every breath as a gift and an opportunity, as, instinctively, I do (reinforced by the little story of that tin of Vienna Sausages and the context within which I consumed them). The predominant thoughts on my mind, as I approach this birthday, are “What Now?” “What will there be to discover and learn in the year to come?” “Have I changed because of the year gone by?” “What has changed?” “How?”

These call to mind a thought-experiment I was encouraged to ponder as a teenager on retreat: “If you knew that you only had but one more day in which to live, what would you do differently?”

Of course, it’s a trick question expressed the way it is, throwing emphasis on itemizing the things one would do differently. The answer, instead, is aimed at comporting one’s daily life so that it is indistinguishable from one’s last day… so that nothing need be done differently. No regrets for actions taken or not taken. No embarrassment for words spoken in thoughtlessness or anger. No missed opportunity to express, enthusiastically, the joy of life or the pleasurable obligations of companionship. And no cessation, either, of ongoing gratitude for God’s abundant grace.

To be sure, only Saints (and sometimes, I’ll warrant; not even, they) succeed in achieving these goals. Apropos of this, I should mention that Monica and I recently brought home a newly-adopted young dog. She’s a “rescue dog,” named “Gracie”. Without our intending it be so, Gracie has taken to assisting me in my endeavors. It is impossible not to observe that Gracie’s got the solution to the thought-experiment down, pat. It may be more challenging for us, mere humans to master the goals suggested by the though-experiment! Lucky, indeed, then, that I appear to have been given more time to work on mine.



Chemo Infusion 3/12—Life vs. Death


I’m generally of an optimistic disposition. I am at the very beginning of my treatment. But I recognize that, to date, I’ve been writing quite positive-sounding “status reports”. It cannot always be so. Depression must surely be a part of the treatment process if one is at all in possession of a balanced emotional spectrum. And so it was, unaccountably, that I arrived at the Cancer Clinic this morning decidedly depressed.  My feelings were stimulated by no particular incident I can recall. It just happened. Although unwanted (in my case, intensely so), I’ll wager that someone will explain to me that my depression is actually healthy in some counterintuitive way whose logic I trust, but have not yet quite figured out.


Surely the overriding cause for depression during chemotherapy is confrontation with death. Not everyone survives who has the blessing of cancer treatment. All too many cancers are fatal to the patient. I, myself, know individuals who have died of cancer, some of whom did “not go gently into the night” (as Dylan Thomas cautioned against) and whom I miss terribly. It is tempting to ask the question “Why did it happen?”  “Why, so early?”  “She/he had so much left to give. Why would God (or any other external agent) let such a thing happen?” “Why can’t we find a remedy?” Ultimately, when one pushes such questions to the extreme, none of them have answers… not just “satisfactory answers”; the questions simply defy answering. There are no answers to such interrogations.

We often formulate our depressed questions within a binary construct of black and white (“life” versus “death”). This may have much to do with the exaggerated meaning we commonly ascribe to death. The term “death”, as we use and understand it, is always used in extremis: defined by the notion of terminal, ultimate, final, irreversible; an ending. All of these concepts are fearsome, indeed.

In fact, however, everything we experience in life invariably involves death. It seems as if life cannot exist without death. Living may be, in some fundamental way, dependent on death in order to be life. We experience this paradox in every category. Mentally: If we did not forget, our brains could not deal with the, second by nanosecond, incoming sensations that the brain continually processes. Physically: If we did not slough off dead skin cells, our largest organ would soon fail to protect us against our (perhaps increasingly hostile) environment. Hematologically: If we did not lose our white blood cells by the thousands, how could our immune system adjust to new bacterial and viral threats that possibly hadn’t existed when we were born? Emotionally: If we did not suffer the sometimes deep agony of break-up and separation, would we not cherish, less, the relationships that sustain us? Spiritually: The important books of many religions describe various iterations of what St. John of the Cross called “The Dark Night of the Soul.” In each, emerging from this dismal stage of life invariably leads to a renewed sense of self and ushered in an enlightened belonging in Creation.

Recognizing the relationship of life and death in this interlocked, rather than mutually exclusive way, is shocking. It dispels the comfort of the extremes. Black and whites are easier to deal with than the greys that have elusive borders.  We experience an affinity towards extremes at the individual level.  But we do so, as well, at the social level. Human societies exhibit a terribly unsatisfying tendency to reduce complexity to simplistic extremes, of which the following are simply a few contemporary examples: US Government: in the partisanship  that has been poisonous, in my time, since the days of Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove. International Relations: through the apparent need to demonize any opponent as “the enemy” (evidenced by counting American deaths in battle by every solitary individual, while passing over [as mere “collateral damage”] the scores of death [indeed, numberless scores] of innocent civilians in foreign countries.) Religion: in the condemnation as heretics, those who—even faithfully committed to a different (not even necessarily contradictory) strain of the same religion—adhere to a variable belief or tradition (Shi’ites vs. Suny adherents to Muhammad’s teachings).

I am not prepared to accept my cancer as having equal merit of existence with the benign cells of my body. Its presence is clearly dangerous to me, as are extremists of all stripes dangerous to our human societies. Both must be thwarted in their design. But I somehow resist labeling cancer as death, when cancer cell’s very activity of rapid generation suggests the opposite. It may even turn out that we are (I have been) complicit in stimulating my cancer into being. Associated with this potentiality is the troubling realization that we tend to deal promptly with evidence but might be better advised to reach deeper toward real underlying causes. Humans, after all, possess the option to apply alternative perspectives to all the problems that face us. Rather than deploying full-body scanners throughout our airports that irradiate us (however minimally, it is claimed), we might find it more productive in quelling terrorism if we seriously addressed the reality and consequences of the fact that we, privileged 20% of the earth’s population, consume 80% of its resources. A sustained medical research effort might be similarly productive: to match the emergence of cancers with only apparently unrelated social decisions (such as technological and economic decisions we have made in agricultural settings to adopt a monoculture growing system with its artificial packaging and economically disastrous delivery systems). Such seemingly innocuous decisions with their unintended consequences seem increasingly to be somehow related to outcomes requiring scientific and especially medical intervention.

Meanwhile, as these somewhat inchoate thoughts rummage around in my mind, a cautionary over-abundance of poisons is being ingested into my body. I have chosen to participate in one Clinical Trial intended to provide data on whether a treatment of 3 month’s duration is as efficacious as a treatment of 6 month’s duration (so widely variable are the guesses about what “works best.”)  My liver strains to filter out as much of the excess poison as possible and undertakes to eliminate the most egregiously harmful elements it identifies.  I find I must urinate.  As I stand in front of the urinal at the Clinic (having towed, behind me, my stand of infusion bags, tubes, and monitoring equipment) I am confronted by a thoughtfully positioned eye-level sign which, alas, does little to dissipate my depression.  It carries a worthy admonition and a frighteningly cautionary reminder: “Chemotherapy Patients—Please Flush Twice.” Nurses, Doctors and staff, I find out, are encouraged not to use these patient-designated facilities, but to employ others down the hall.

To make it worse, I cannot help but wonder where it is to which my flushes are directed. I cannot help but worry that our human species—in its valiant and admirable effort to combat the symptoms of a terrible disease—may be, inadvertently, exposing other species (fish, shellfish, sponges, corals, aquatic plants, swimming amphibians and mammals with whom we share this earth), to molecules and substances they have never before experienced nor have developed the necessary protections by which to defend themselves.