Monday, May 20, 2013

You Don’t Have to Find Out You’re Dying to Start Living

I originally wanted to title today’s post, You’re So Vein because my veins have been getting smaller and scarred with each successive stick. Jason, the very skilled nurse that installed my PICC line today now has a certain Carly Simon song of the same name that has effectively embedded itself in his cerebral cortex thanks to yours truly. So, I’m now sporting my shiny new PICC line awaiting chemo and all the other fun-ness that goes along with it. But, I do want to take a serious turn at this point, so don’t mistake my humor for irreverence. If you’ve read anything prior to this post, you know I have a streak of flippant humor that has helped me cope through the seriousness of what it is I’m working through.

I have acute myeloid leukemia – a form of cancer that affects my blood production. The day I was diagnosed, I was given three months to live if the cancer went untreated.  That three month mark is today and I’m very much alive and I feel as good. Today is also the beginning of my third cycle for chemotherapy or what I so affectionately call toxic chemical goodness. I was admitted this afternoon and barring any unforeseen circumstances, I’ll be heading home on Sunday and will resume the waiting game for a bone marrow donor. Because of my relative young age and insistence on keeping physically active, I’ve really been doing rather well.

This is the sixth hospitalization since I found out I had 50% cancerous cells in my bone marrow and was living on borrowed time. Looking back over the past three months, I’ve obviously learned a tremendous amount about cancer and leukemia in particular; I’ve learned a lot about human kindness as well as human nature; and I’ve learned quite a bit about myself.  Looking at yourself through cancer-colored glasses, the pretense falls away and you see yourself for who you are. You also see others much more clearly. The honesty is, in many ways, brutal, but it can be refreshing and bring you peace if you take in the whole picture rather than keeping the focus on yourself. In that way, cancer really is a gift. Just like any gift though, we have to be willing to receive it – accepting both the responsibility as well as the benefit for its ownership. There is no re-gifting of this bad boy.

Cancer has a way of forcing you to confront reality, to see things for what they are. Barriers drop and when smiles come, they tend to the real deal. Pretense and pity find no stronghold and your priorities become pretty apparent. For some, there’s an overwhelming, “why me?” In my case, I’ve found that cancer has intensified my sense of gratitude and even the small things that I had otherwise taken for granted now assume a whole new character and meaning. I can’t say that impending mortality is what drives this heightened awareness, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s fair to say that when faced with a life-threatening illness, there’s an element of time that pulls it out. I’ve said it in different ways in past postings, but in honor of Zach Sobiech, who passed away today at the ripe old age of 18, I’m using his words: “You don’t have to find out you’re dying to start living.”

A friend of mine from Minnesota had posted a music video on Facebook that Zach had made and I used it as my music of the day on my posting on April 3. In the same way I use writing and humor to cope and to express myself, he uses music. I felt an instant connection in that Zach was dealing with a cancer and his attitude was positive and contagious. And that was just from the video clips I saw. In his case, he has a bone cancer called osteosarcoma. I found out the sad news today that he went down today in his fight, but you can be assured that Zach Sobiech did not lose. While he had some very bad days, he had some very good days as well, and from what I could see, his impact was felt far and wide and for an 18 year-old, he leaves an incredible legacy. He fought his battles with such grace and good humor and we could all learn a thing or two from him.

It’s another variation on the theme: “I don’t control life, but I control how I react to it.” It doesn’t mean simply allowing life to happen, but rather living life. I am saddened that Zach’s life was as brief as it was, yet he packed a lot in those eighteen years! I don’t know how many more years I have. I may have a few or I may end up outliving my grandfather’s extraordinary 99 years. Who can say? What I can say is that the years I do have remaining are going to be even more fruitful and extraordinary than the ones I’ve lived; and I’ve done an awful lot.

It doesn’t take a bucket list to do what’s important before we die. It just takes the will to really live. Don’t wait for someone to tell you that you have an expiration date. But don’t take my word for it, listen to the wise-beyond-his-years Zach Sobiech in this video.
Click here to see the celebrity video from the song he wrote.  You can see part of it in the video above.
Be well, stay strong, and much love to you all.