HEARING THE BELL
If cancer has announced YOUR bell lap, what will you do? No one enters a race to lose, yet some in the human race collapse on the track when the bell rings, or they just turn tail and take off in the wrong direction. This blog is not about them. It's about those who set out to win, not just in terms of health, but also in life.
Anyone can be victorious, but it doesn't come easily or without work. No one can do it for you. This is do it yourself stuff. You can't buy it. You can't hire it out. You are the only contestant in your race. Although winning doesn't look the same for everyone, but it feels the same --triumphant!
To get on the winner’s podium you have to first hear the bell and acknowledge what it means. Then you must deal decisively with the issues of the first stretch: identify and cope with the Dragon in the near corner; shift into overdrive in the backstretch where you decide what really matters and what you will hope for, discover who you really are and what baggage you carry; then lighten your load, focus your course and joyfully run to make your life count. The far corner is for passing the baton and getting ready for your final kick down the home stretch. Hopefully that is a long way off, but everyone who is prepared for the homestretch runs the backstretch better. So buck up and do it.
Although I have met a number of patients who started running too late, I've never met someone who started running too hard too soon. I know many who started their kick early and are still running. For them, the finish line often just seems to be moving away out in front of them because it is not their focus; living into a newfound purpose is.
When the word cancer rings the bell, the very ground shakes, vision blurs and everyone stumbles. No one can quite see the finish line, but all of a sudden they become aware it is out there looming vaguely in the mist. But how close? Nearly everyone is totally unprepared. That wouldn't happen in the contests we watch. Not in the NFL or the NBA or the Olympics, those sporting events that are meant to imitate life. Why does it happen to us? NFL players spend the preseason and all year practicing strategies for the last two minutes, plays to stop the clock, onside kicks, and desperation 50 yard field goals. NBA teams methodically practice strategies year-round for in-bounding the ball under pressure with the seconds counting down just to set up the last shot at the buzzer. When writing a term paper that your grade depends on, you wouldn’t wait until the last minute to start your research, develop an outline and craft your prose. So why do you wait to do the end of life research, outline your goals and start pursuing them when your life and legacy are at stake? Socrates counseled that we should "always be occupied in the practice of dying" as did the Dalai Lama and Jesus offered promises to those who do. If you are unprepared to hear the bell and stumble at the sound, you can still catch up if you have some clues what to expect. There is a great deal of pain that can be avoided that can otherwise suck the very happiness out of your days if you don’t - and leave you with PTCD - even after the cancer is gone and you are home from the war. (Post Traumatic Cancer Distress)
DON’T WASTE YOUR CANCER
A friend was riding up the Rainier Express at the Crystal Mountain Ski Resort in the Cascade Mountains when a man skiing down Sunnyside, the run right beneath the chairlift caught his eye. The skier was strong, agile and obviously having a marvelous time. Suddenly, something went terribly wrong and he went careening helplessly down the hill like a ragdoll until a steep mogul arrested his fall: he lay contorted and motionless. Some biologic event, a plug of platelets in a coronary artery or a quirk of electrical activity in his heart muscle, ventricular fibrillation or blown aneurysm in the brain ended his life. Tragic for a 56 year old man thoroughly engaged in the zest of living. I don't know the rest of his story, but I do know the passionate response of the guys sipping beer listening to it: "What a great way to go amid the exhilaration of a challenging adventure well met!”
It occurred to me later that should my biology afford me an opportunity for such a rapid exit how great it would be to have it come while skiing the steeps in deep powder on a sunny day, one minute in ecstasy and then, in a heartbeat, wake up in Heaven. But would I really be ready? Would I have learned all that I needed (or wanted) to learn? Would I have fulfill all the responsibilities and opportunities of the life I’ve been given? And would I really be in Heaven?
With cancer, there is a bell, and there is a bell lap. There is time to plan and to get ready. And if you run in the right direction, there will be enough time to complete it well. But for those who choose not to run, there is never enough time. I know because I have watched them fail. Some refuse to hear the bell. Others deny what it means or run the wrong direction. Some give up and start dying the very day the bell rings becoming the walking dead who squander their remaining days instead of fully living each one until the last. This is not a blog about dying, it’s about living. Some who read these words will die soon and some will not die for many years. But they both need to pay attention. Those who read these words, and consider them, and take them to heart can live a fuller more rewarding and exciting life, and maybe, just maybe, a longer one as well.
Ultimately the strategy for the bell lap comes down to identifying those factors you can control, or at least influence, and those you cannot. We want to identify everything you can control so you are equipped to control them - and what you can’t control so you can find a way over, around or through them.
SURVIVING MEANS KNOWING YOUR ENVIRONMENT
The language of medicine, its terminology, it’s strange and often disgusting topics, its new interpersonal dynamics, its machines, needles, tubes and smells are all foreign. If you don’t understand them, each is a potential source of uncertainty and fear that the Dragon can exploit against you. Every unknown that you can eliminate now is one less that you will have to deal with later, and one less burden on your back as you come running into the backstretch. You must start off by learning as much about your new environment as possible. Pummel the nurses and staff with every question you can think of. They are usually savvy and can expand on what the doctors have said or what you forgot to ask.
Survivors in the wild try to understand their environment before a crisis arrives. This applies as much for patients in the foreign terrain of a cancer hospital as it is for climbers in the mountains or sailors on the ocean. Loving risky adventures, I read Deep Survival by Lawrence Gonzales to prepare for the next calamity in my life.I wanted to glean whatever tips I could from true survivors about how to improve my odds out in the wilderness; if ever I find myself at the bottom of a crevasse with a broken leg, adrift in the open ocean in a dingy or being chased by bear, I want to know that someone else has survived the same predicament and just how they did it. That is what you want to know from cancer survivors and exactly what I want to tell you.
THE NEAR CORNER - NUMBER ONE GOAL
Narrow it down and be clear about your primary goal, then keep your eyes fixed on it in every segment of your run. Otherwise, the Dragon will try to distract you and get you focusing on the wrong things.
Don’t be flippant about this, I am talking about your number one goal in life. Before facing a disease and the threat of death it may well have been about achieving things or getting stuff, goals that are suddenly losing their luster. Getting cancer can change your outlook, so give it some thought. For most people, it is to achieve and ensure the greatest number of Symptom-Free-Days (days free from both the symptoms of cancer and its treatment) in order to continue cherished relationships.
For more see CANCER'S BELL LAP - available now through this website and soon (March 2016) through Amazon etc.