“Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty, even in times of greatest distress.” ~Milan Kundera
When my father received a terminal cancer diagnosis, I went through a wave of different emotions. Fear, anger, sadness. It opened a completely new dictionary that I had not had access to before. A realm of experiences, thoughts, and emotions that lie at the very bedrock of human life was suddenly revealed to me.
After the initial horror and dread at hearing the news had subsided, I was surprised to find a new sense of meaning and connection in the world around me.
In part, dealing with this news has been profoundly lonely. But the truth is, cancer is a human experience, and it’s been overwhelming and humbling to walk into a reality shared by so many people across the world.
I was immediately confronted with how much I had avoided other people’s experiences because cancer frightened me.
Our minds are fickle when confronted with terminal illness. It can be difficult to untangle the horror and pain we associate with cancer from someone’s very rich and dignified life despite it.
We see cancer as a deviation from what human life is supposed to offer. A part of this can be found in the values we hold in our culture and our idealization of productivity as proof of our worthiness, with pleasure as the ultimate symbol of success. In this fast-paced, luxury-crazed world, there’s no room for hurt, pain, and mortality.
On a personal level, I understand that it can be difficult to avoid thinking of cancer as an evil intruder that steals away the ones we love, that disrupts any chance at a good life with its debilitating symptoms and treatments. Cancer is a frightening reminder of limitations and loss.
I was greatly affected by my expectations of cancer, in that when I found out about my father’s terminal diagnosis, I instantly began grieving a person who was still very much alive. As if life with cancer wasn’t really a life at all.
After all, terminal means there is no cure. It means that if left untreated, it kills you. It also means that treatment won’t keep you alive forever. You will die of it, unless you die of something else in the meantime, which is likely, considering the risk of infection and complication associated with the aggressive treatment and a deteriorating immune system. It’s a death sentence.
My first reaction to the news was that my parents had to make the most of the time they had left together. They have always been ardent travelers, and as far back as I can remember, talked excitedly about the trips they were going to take when they were older.
I instinctively felt existential dread on their behalf and encouraged them to take out their bucket list and start packing their suitcases, to start traveling while they still had the chance.
Now I see how misplaced my reaction was. To my parents, the whole appeal of traveling vanished when it was motivated by the ticking clock of imminent death. In telling them to go travel, all they heard was “you’re going to die, and you haven’t gotten to the end of your bucket list!”
It turns out, life is so much more than the collection of ideas we have about what we’re going to do and where we’re going to go. Life is not about getting through a list. Sometimes only the gravest of situations can show us what is sacred in our lives.
By living through a pandemic and then receiving a cancer diagnosis, my father’s life came to a bit of a standstill. But despite my original anxiety on his behalf, it wasn’t really the sad ordeal I thought it would be.
On the contrary. My father woke up from a life of constant traveling and planning for the future, only to find that he loves the life he is already living in the present moment.
The abundance of life is not out there on a beach in Spain, it’s in the first home he ever owned, next to the forest he loves, where on a wind-still day you can hear the ocean; it’s drinking coffee in the garden with his wife, and reading books in the company of a devoted, purring cat; it’s using the fine china for breakfast and playing board games on rainy evenings.
I’m sure that my father has moments of fear about his disease and about death, but for the most part, he’s just dealing with the existential and human need of wanting to be treated with dignity, of being more than a disease he happens to have, being more than a symbol of a death that comes to us all eventually anyway.
Cancer brings with it a whole new world of thoughts and feelings; a lot of it is heavy, a lot of it is fear and pain, but there is also dignity, humility, connection, love, and acceptance. It demands new ideas about life and death, about people, about where we come from and who we are.
I cannot imagine anything more human and more dignified than that.
As I led with, I have gone through a wave of emotions since I found out that one of my favorite people in the world has terminal cancer. It has in no way been easy, but life doesn’t always have to be easy to be good. I have journeyed somewhere deep and unfamiliar and found something there that I never expected to find—hope.
Hope doesn’t always mean the promise of a better future or of finding a cure to our physical and psychological ailments. Hope is knowing that we are flawed, that we suffer, that we are finite. It dictates that every moment is sacred, and every life has dignity.
Before we die, we live. The cause of our deaths will be any number of things. Cancer could be one of the reasons we die. We might have cancer and die of something else. That’s not what defines us. And we must make sure not to define each other by it either.
When someone looks at you and utters the word “terminal,” you might be surprised to find hope. Hope, it turns out, wears many hats. Personally, I found it in the insurmountable evidence of human dignity.