When I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, I started preparing to die. Granted, we should all “live like we’re dying” as singer Kris Allen reminds us, but an aggressive diagnosis ups the urgency on doing just that. I went back to teaching even though I could barely stand up because I wanted to be in the classroom one last time. I stopped buying new clothes because I didn’t think I’d have much time to wear them. I insisted on a summer vacation even though my stamina was shaky because I thought that would be the last one I’d take with the family. My husband and I secured burial plots. There didn’t seem to be much time, and I was intentional in my preparations for the end.
Then I went into remission. Having already resigned from my life, I gradually let myself believe that there could be another semester in the classroom, that if I bought new clothes I’d have some time to wear them, that I might get to experience another family vacation. What an amazing turn of events. Thank God, thank the doctors, thank the world for allowing me more time.
Living with gratitude has been at the top of the life agenda these past five years of finding remission, losing it, then finding it again. The days, months, and years have been accompanied by unfathomable gifts of grace. At the same time, the space occupied by a stage IV cancer diagnosis, the fickle status of remission, and ongoing oncology visits and chemo treatments is often a discomforting one. In a recent New York Times op ed piece, Paul Kalanithi, a young resident neurological surgeon recently diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer, tries to figure out how to live in that space. “The path forward would seem obvious,” he writes, “if only I knew how many months or years I had left.”
Even though all of us not on our deathbeds can’t know the hour of our death, we all know we will die. As Kalanithi points out, however, those of us with metastatic cancer know this acutely. In his own grappling with how to live in the midst of a devastating diagnosis, this budding surgeon has found wisdom in writer Samuel Beckett’s claim, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” statements that capture the competition between resignation and determination, between despair over receiving a premature death sentence and evidence that death is most likely not tomorrow. How do we “live like we’re dying” in ways that embrace what is while also hoping for more?
I’ve been told that one day a stage IV breast cancer diagnosis will most often not be a death sentence but rather a transition to living with a chronic condition. So far, I seem to be living in that future. The “management” of my condition had a rocky start and has endured several bumps along the way, but overall, I’m living very well with a serious, chronic condition. How awesome. Yet I hear from the experts that know of no others doing as well as I’m doing with this condition. How lousy.
Being an anomaly makes that discomforting space a bit more uncomfortable. But I go on, trying to lean as fully as possible in to that space, praying that more who share my diagnosis will occupy the space with me, and hoping that I have more days, months, and years, to understand how to respond to “I can’t go on” with “I’ll go on.”