By Richard P. Holm
There is something about that word “cancer”; the big C.
When the pathology report displays those abnormal type cells on biopsy and the report spells out those six black letters, then, whether it is a simple treatable condition or one that will most certainly predict an earlier death, the patient hears cancer and it changes everything.
Through the years, I have had to inform too many patients about a diagnosis of cancer. I have learned there is often a paralyzing fear that comes with the word. Due to advancements in science, many more people are winning the fight against cancer compared to when I first started practicing medicine. Still, whenever I have to say, “you have cancer", often the word “cancer” is the only thing they’ll think about for next several days.
Unfortunately, some people who hear the word come to face their mortality for the very first time, even when the chance of cure is good. I dare say this goes for too many of us, resulting both from unrealistic expectations in this scientifically advanced world, and the cover-up of the dying process in this everything-is-going-to-be-alright society.
This week a friend told me she and her husband were preparing to sell their house by thinning out their stuff collected over 15 years and remodeling with that new carpet they've needed for a long time. It reminded me of a how a realtor friend of mine once told me how he keeps his house ready for sale at all times, even if he has no intention of selling it. Why not put in the carpet, paint the bedroom, and fix the steps so that he can enjoy it right now? Why put off until tomorrow what can be done today?
In a similar vein, I have heard it said that every once in a while, perhaps yearly, we should all have some kind of significant brush with death and then be rescued. Maybe that would help us to remember how impermanent life really is; maybe that would help us to get and keep our house in order. Then, when each of us has our turn to cross the river into that land of the Sweet Bye and Bye, we can feel what the young neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi, said before dying of cancer, "(I have found a joy)...unknown to me in prior years... a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests... satisfied in this time, right now..."*
We shouldn't have to come down with cancer to get our house in order.
*Paul Kalanithi MD, Before I go: A Stanford neurosurgeon's parting wisdom about life and time. The Washington Post, March 12, 2015