on being diagnosed with cancer
Today Oliver Sacks — a neurology professor at NYU and a prolific writer — wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, “My Own Life,” on learning that he has terminal cancer. Lots of friends are sharing it on Facebook, drawing quotes they find moving. The passage that stuck most with me was:
I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).
I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends.
I know this feeling. Perhaps a bit more than I’d like. On the day before Thanksgiving, I was diagnosed with cancer. To be more specific, I was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML).
CML is not terminal cancer. I’m not dying. Not much more than the rest of you, anyway. (Maybe even less.) As we wrote in the family Christmas letter this year, “If one has to have cancer, CML is the best one to get (Kim’s exceptional taste appears to extend to health ailments!).”
There is a treatment for CML — in fact, there’s more than one treatment option. I have elected to take a daily pill. I have been taking it for just over two months now, and all things going well, I will take it every day for the rest of my life. I just checked in again with my oncologist a week ago and my prognosis is pretty great. My body is already responding to the treatment and I’m not experiencing strong side effects from the medication.
But a couple of months ago, I was a mess. Every time I remembered “I have cancer”, I thought about my two-year-old. My seven-year-old. My husband. My best friend. And thinking about my mom really did a number on me. Recalling it now causes my eyes to well up.
But back to the passage in the op-ed by Sacks. When I told a friend and colleague about my diagnosis, she encouraged me to scale back on work. (She was diagnosed with cancer and tough as she is, the cancer and the treatments really wiped her out. She is in remission now.) After suggesting I scale back, she promptly said that I should do what I wanted, that everyone is different and maybe working full-tilt was actually the best option for me. That maybe I’m the kind of person who would benefit from just moving on as usual. She said that having cancer did not make her a better person or make her reconsider her life.
My experience was different. Like my friend, I don’t think that cancer has made me a better person, but I have reconsidered my time. Sure, my diagnosis is not on the same level of Oliver Sacks. But my diagnosis clarified for me how I want to spend the time I’ve been gifted with. For better or worse, there are plenty of things I’ve decided I have no time for. And there are fewer things I find worth being away from my family for.