I was all alone 3000 miles north of my Seattle home when it came rambling rudely into my life. It walked right out of the fever dreams of my childhood and out of the Yukon tundra and taught me something that not only my cancer patients, but God had been trying to teach me for years – something the Windrunners already knew. Naked from an arctic stream plunge before making the dinner campfire, I came face to face with an animal drawn to the smell of food and looking for dinner.

Some people learn profound things about God in a personal encounter with a horrible illness. I had watched them for years on the cancer wards, but I was a slow learner until I met Ursus Actos Horribilis. My bare nakedness was no match for his bear grizzly-ness, and while I quickly lost my appetite, it did not.

Only when I rounded a scrub fir carrying my shirt and shorts did I see my gun and clothes lying across my pack at the foot of a very large bear squinting at me through beady black eyes. Its head swayed from right to left as it studied me. I was without a weapon, nor a tree to climb, without much of a plan or much of a faith.

I was caught completely by surprise, sort of the way cancer catches so many, entirely vulnerable, defenseless, and alone. I was cold with a clammy wetness -- and not just from the stream. My first inclination was to run and so was my second. Down the list somewhere came prayer. Meanwhile the bear just stood there getting bigger by the second, kind of like the dawning specter of a just-diagnosed cancer.  Sound familiar?

How very inconvenient it all was and how it spoiled all my plans. It interrupted what had been a marvelous day and promised to be a beautiful evening. But of course, I didn't think much about that; I was too busy just being scared. Much later when the fear receded a little, I got angry. That had more to do with getting my hands on a gun than being brave.

Thoughts of gratitude for still being alive were fleeting as fear and anger jockeyed for domination of my thoughts. How silly, ignoble and arrogant of me to presume to be angry. The bear was only doing what bears do, following his nose towards food and, in this case, me. Cancer just does what it does: grow continuously invading and destroying other organs and lives.

I am equally silly when I get upset with my body when it does what bodies do, i.e., break down. There are always dangerous and unpredictable bears in our lives, they just have different names. The question isn't if they will appear, but when, and how we will respond. The bear taught me something that many learn from cancer and it will stand me in good stead whichever terror I face next.

Diseases like cancer bring all of the break-down issues into focus suddenly. In THE BELL LAP AND THE DRAGON BEHIND THE DOOR a cancer diagnosis became a metaphorical bell announcing the last lap of a life. Not many recognize what that portends- neither the risks nor the opportunities, but those who do, run better and often longer bell laps.

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