In November 1999, at age 43, I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and underwent
surgery to remove the tumor and a quarter of my colon. That was bad enough, but
in December of that year, a follow-up CT scan showed a tumor in my liver. I was
stage four. And there is no stage five.
Ten years later, I am in remission. And I am still processing the experience.
For most, the year 2000 was the dawn of a new millennium. For me, it was a year
of darkness, a crossroads at the intersection of life and death. It was an anxiety-filled
year of trips between Hawai‘i and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in
New York City, countless tests, liver resection surgery, and the fog of chemotherapy.
A pre-existing low-grade depression was exacerbated by my emotional trauma and chemo
Until then, mortality had been an abstract concept for me, something I would eventually
have to deal with, but not for a few decades. A cancer diagnosis, especially stage-four
cancer, brings that far-off event smack dab in front of you.
Hearing my diagnosis was a roller-coaster ride, at least as far as my body was concerned.
I actually felt myself plummet as the outside world rushed by me. Psychologically,
I was Alice through the looking glass. My world flipped: Left was right and right
was left. It seemed as though nothing would ever be the same again.
I was not proud of how I dealt with my illness. Fear, paranoia and indecisiveness
ruled my thoughts and actions. I had always heard of people’s heroic battles
against cancer, but felt inadequately equipped for the fight. Well-meaning friends
and relatives gave me books on the power of positive thinking and profiles of people
whose lives had been turned around by cancer. One author had actually started an
“exceptional cancer patient” society. I felt like a minority back in
the days of exclusionary private clubs. I knew I would never be accepted into that
And yet – through some inner strength I never knew I had, excellent medical
care, and, mostly, the love, prayers and generosity of loved ones – I survived.
Looking back, the experience didn’t make me a hero (far from it) or a fighter.
Some people become these things after a cancer diagnosis, and that’s fine.
But the rest of us don’t need to be intimidated by the amazing, inspiring
accomplishments of the exceptional patients who have walked the road we are about
to traverse. However we walk that road – whether we stride, stumble, break
land-speed records, or hobble – we each do it one step at a time.
After I completed my final chemo treatment, my father wrote me a letter. In it,
he pointed out one positive outcome from the whole ordeal: He no longer held me
up on a pedestal. At first, I didn’t understand, but now I do. The experience
allowed me to be something more than his perfect son. It allowed me to be a human
being, with my own strengths and weaknesses.
We are born human. As we grow up, ego, a false sense of immortality, and a preoccupation
with nonessentials cause us to drift. Catastrophic illnesses, and second chances,
get us back in line.
Today, I am thankful to be alive and have rejoined the club to which I have always
qualified for membership: The human race.