I recently spoke briefly at Mission Health’s Cancer Survivor’s Day. Regular readers of my reflections will recognize some of these themes, but I post these remarks in case they might prove helpful.
5½ years ago I learned that I have multiple myeloma.
For more than half of the years since, I’ve been in treatment—chemotherapy, stem cell transplant, and immunotherapy—as I am now and as it looks like I will be indefinitely. The complications of illness and treatment have ranged from irritating to harrowing. I’ve experienced frustration and fatigue, weakness and pain, steroid-induced hyperactivity and chemo-brain, discouragement and depression. I went to the threshold of death and, eventually, resumed a more-or-less normal life—though life after diagnosis has never been the same again; and, in more ways that I would have thought possible, I’m grateful that it hasn’t been.
Though I would have been glad to learn what cancer has taught me in other ways and from gentler teachers, I wouldn’t want to be without what I’ve learned about myself, about the urgency of now and the preciousness of the present, and about the power of love to heal even when medicine cannot cure.
The median survival rate for Multiple Myeloma patients when I was diagnosed was about 5 years. Given how arduous some stretches of this journey have been, I would have bet against my living this long; yet here I am, astonished and thankful, and here you are, too.
Kate Bowler, professor at Duke Divinity School, has written about how difficult it has been for her, as a young woman, scholar, wife, and mother, to deal with the dire diagnosis of Stage 4 Colon Cancer. A new kind of treatment proved to be effective for her, and she spoke recently about her confusion over how to describe her present condition: “Getting back to life has been really tricky. . . My life doesn’t exactly fit into neat categories anymore. I was healthy and then I was sick and now I’m feeling pretty good and even though the language around immunotherapy isn’t perfect, I can happily say that I’m in remission. But I asked the doctor what the right term for me might be, and he said, ‘Survivor-in-progress,’ which was super annoying.” [“Everything Happens,” podcast, Interview of Kelly Corrigan, 2019].
I delight in her honesty. It’s annoying, to say the least, that the best any of us can say is that we are “survivors in progress.” That’s true, by the way, for everyone in this room, whether or not you have or have had cancer. We’re all surviving something, even if it’s not a serious or chronic illness. Maybe it’s loneliness or aimlessness, addiction or trauma, anxiety or grief. We’re all in recovery from something, all coming back from various kinds of setbacks, and all facing a time when the progress will stop and we won’t be survivors any longer.
Survival isn’t mainly or mostly a self-help project. We don’t survive for very long or live very well in isolation. We need the companionship and the care of others. Illness has taught me that my once-proud independence was really an illusion. I am dependent, more dependent than I acknowledged before diagnosis, on other people. I am here today because I’ve been helped by scores, even hundreds of people, many of whom I’ve never met:
Lab technicians who decode the messages of my blood.
Radiologists who read scans and x-rays.
Pharmacists who mix the drugs which flow into my veins.
Patients who participated in clinical trials for those drugs and researchers who discovered and developed them.
Doctors, PAs, nurses, and other medical staff and caregivers who shepherd me through the uneven terrain of treatment
Social workers, chaplains, and therapists who listen to me and who sit with me in silence when I don’t know what to say.
A handful of “witnesses”—family and friends—who acknowledge and help to interpret my experience.
People who hold me in Light, Love, and prayer.
I’m needy and grateful.
For me, merely surviving isn’t enough—necessary, but not sufficient. Survival can be a goal, a task, and a gift, but it isn’t a purpose. It’s a how, but not a why, a means and not an end. We don’t pursue survival for survival’s sake: survival is for life’s sake.
We want to survive because there is love left to share, discoveries yet to make, wonders still to encounter, and mysteries awaiting exploration. There are songs to sing, poems to write, cookies to bake, flowers to grow, diplomas to earn, proms to attend, sunsets to savor, dawns to greet, Christmases to celebrate, and grandchildren to welcome into the world. There are blessings to give. There is forgiveness to seek and to extend. There are tears and laughter to share.
I don’t want simply to survive cancer. Survival is a great gift. The greater gift and the more significant challenge is to live as fully as we can while we are yet alive, so that, to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, we won’t die with our music still in us.
Recently, at the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theater in Mars Hill, I saw a fine production of Steve Martin’s and Edie Brickell’s bluegrass musical “Bright Star.” The title song includes these wise words: “You never know what life will bring, only what you bring to life.”
We bring gratitude, not taking for granted or as entitlements the simple and profound gifts we receive.
We bring urgency. Now is the time to be who we are and who we’re meant to be and to do what we dream—those things that will bring delight and peace to us and others.
We bring hard-earned wisdom. We’ve learned that some things over which we sweated and fretted don’t matter nearly as much as we thought, and we know that some things we undervalued are the most priceless things of all, priceless because they aren’t “things” at all. They are matters of the heart. And, we bring hope—not easy optimism, but durable trust and risky confidence—that the story of our lives is one that does or will make sense and have meaning and that, whatever happens, we are in the hands of Eternal and Tender Love.