Three Lessons from a Cancer Patient

At times, the best teacher is the roughest of them all, namely our mortality and the imminence of death. 

I wasn’t feeling great yesterday and so I took my usual remedy on such occasions and went out for a walk. I am not quite certain why, but there sure is something about nightly destination-free walks of solitude that brings out an immense sense of peace…

On some occasions, I walk in silence and observe the world around me. On others, I want a lively conversation in the background. Yesterday was the latter. I downloaded a podcast to listen to and walked out the door.

Going by the title alone, the podcast I chose did not promise to be cheerful. It was about thyroid cancer and a life within the boundaries defined by it. I cannot know why exactly I chose this episode among others, but I presume it was a delicate mix of many factors — my mood, my affinity for philosophies that do not ignore mortality,  the fact that around 40% of us will eventually develop some form of cancer!

Nonetheless, I can honestly say the podcast was amazing and potentially life-changing. Despite of (or maybe precisely because of?) the admittedly grim topic, I found so many precious idea-jewels embedded in a single one hour conversation that I decided to share the highlights here with you.

Relationships are (the most) Important

Early in the podcast, James (James Altucher, who was interviewing) and Mike (who’s got cancer) started talking about the importance of relationships. On this point they found themselves in agreement — relationships are the most important thing in life. 

It’s hard to disagree with that sentiment. Even in my own (much shorter) life, I have already seen that great experiences often come about through great relationships while bad relationships can ruin even theoretically the most exciting of life’s offerings. 

Nonetheless, I feel slightly uncomfortable pronouncing any one thing “life’s most important”. Finding your true self, being creative, experiencing nature’s wonders are all in my opinion comparable to having great relationships. Maybe it’s just my quirk that I prefer the harmony of all the amazing aspects of life to the singling out one as the best…

In any case, listening to James and Mike led me to miss and long for the people who have influenced my life deeply, yet for one reason or another have gone away from it. Ironically, one of those people was researching cancer while another was always encouraging me to help and interact with others (i.e. forming relationships). A few years later, I am now rediscovering their wisdom and realizing how much better my life was and still is because of them.

So, to sum up, do not forget the importance of relationships. Leverage the people around you and make your (and their) life more exciting and awesome.

Understand that Life is a Wonder

While listening to Mike’s explanation of how his thyroid cancer worked, I was gradually growing in amazement and gratitude for our periods of health. The human body is so complex and complicated that it seems a miracle that the inevitable mistakes of nature which happen inside it do not kill us much sooner. 

In a bizarre way, this newly found feeling of life’s shaky foundations was quite liberating. In creativity, there is always a certain anxiety of failure. Sometimes, the very possibility of failure stops us (I know it has stopped me) from beginning in the first place. What will likely fail is not worth starting at all…

Yet, thinking of cancer allowed me to see life as a metaphor for the whole creative process. We all know we are going to die. In life, failure is certain and permanent. Even worse, life itself is so delicate – cancer and an infinity of other diseases can bring it to a halt seemingly in an instant. 

However, life has (subjective) meaning nevertheless. Few of us would a priori say no to life. So, if the fear of failure does not stop us from living, why should it stop us from creating, exploring, loving and growing?

In conclusion, there is a liberation in knowing you have little control over even your very life. Such knowledge continually reminds us that all we can do while alive is enjoy life and take chances on all the things which feel worthy.

Be less concerned with the Future

Mike and James spent quite some time talking about Mike’s expected days on earth. They also talked about Mike’s shifted perception of the future and his attitude towards planning.

In some sense, there were few surprises here. The current optimistic prognosis for Mike standing at around 3 years, his focus had naturally shifted from the distant future to the present and a few weeks ahead. After all, with life about to soon reach its end, many normal life commitments such as entering a marriage or pursuing wealth no longer feel justified or even attractive. 

Mike repeatedly told James how happy and freed he felt because of this. Cancer might ultimately rob him from his life, but it also saved him from the torment of planning and living in the future.

Many philosophies and people espouse staying present. Yet, none of the arguments for doing so ever felt so convincing as a frank discussion of cancer and death.

Mike knows he’s playing dice with his life by trying out all the different drugs out there and so he doesn’t plan for the future. Yet, he seemed that much happier and freer for it. Albeit forced by circumstance, he’s not wasting any of his time. He’s going out and enjoying each and every one of his life moments.

None of that might seem relevant to those of us who are still strong and healthy. Yet, Mike used to once be in that category too. Life is fragile and out of our control. Why try and predict and plan for the decade ahead when a single cell gone awry could spell an early death? 

None of this is to suggest we should never plan at all. In fact, James and Mike talk about (and ultimately reject) an attitude of living each day like its your last. The point is simply that mapping out your retirement in your twenties or thirties instead of enjoying your life now could well be taking too much in the future for granted. Sometimes, a narrower horizon might well be better.

I strongly encourage you all to listen to the podcast.

As can be seen, for me, it was quite informative and educational. It has led me to important ideas and insights. Moreover, it has given me more motivation to read books (e.g. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, that have been staying on my reading list for quite some time.

In short, go and listen. It’s definitely worth it!

(And if you do that, I would love to hear your thoughts as well! So please share in the comments!)

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  1. dotluvs2write December 23, 2017 @ 6:14 PM

    Hi! Great post that was beautifully written and expressed about the importance of living life that is precious and the crucial element of relationships in our life. I’m glad you stressed this. I also found the points on not getting caught up in focusing too much on the future is wise, but often we forget that! So, it’s a good reminder. 🙂 I’ll try and listen to the podcast when I get the chance. Merry Christmas.

    • blago

      blago December 23, 2017 @ 6:15 PM

      Merry Christmas! 🙂

  2. kutukamus December 24, 2017 @ 6:17 AM

    Relationship does matter. It’s what makes (and keeps) people together, feel connected.

  3. FofoFl'or December 24, 2017 @ 11:50 AM

    this makes so much sense, it’s so true, full of meaning and challenging at the same time, i struggle with terrible anxiety which means that my life is practically spent in the future, the present pass me by everyday because in my sick mind it doesn’t matter what is good today or now when i know its going down somewhere ahead! this is so beautifully written and powerful, thanks for sharing!

  4. Francois December 25, 2017 @ 5:16 PM

    Thanks Blago! I’ll definitely listen to the podcast. Happy holidays!

  5. […] I wrote in a previous post about cancer, there is one thing which consistently remains valuable in the face of death: human […]

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