A few weeks ago a friend of mine asked me how having cancer changed my life and I could not give him an answer. This disturbed me because we make sense out of things through “story.” Since I did not have a story, I realized that I had not wrapped meaning around what I had been through the last year and a half.
I am Greek and Lebanese and I am of the Greek Orthodox faith but my story is a “human” story and it is that level at which I hope to connect with you. Virtue is universal so if something I say resonates with you I am sure you will be able to translate it in a personal way authentic to your own personal faith, family and culture.
In writing my life stories I heed the admonition of British philosopher Erich Heller who warns “Be careful how you interpret the world – it is like that.”
CANCER DOES NOT DEFINE ME
If you have had cancer, you are probably familiar with what I have come to call the Lazarus syndrome. We are greeted by people who are grieving and we share their grief. But they are grieving over us and we’re not dead and we have not risen from the dead like Lazarus. I find it very difficult to get one simple point across to these well-intended loving people who sincerely care about me - cancer does not define me!
The clothes I wore to my first PET scan define me more than cancer ever will. I knew I was engaging in a physical battle so I wore my karate gi pants; I knew I was engaging in a spiritual battle so I wore a tee-shirt with a cross on the back; and by no coincidence the cross was emblazoned on the back of a Greek Folk Dance shirt because Greeks have a dance for everything. Greeks dance for joy, sorrow, fighting and Greek Orthodox even do the “Dance of Isaiah” as part of the actual sacrament of matrimony. To a Greek, dancing is synonymous with living and cancer was not about to stop me from dancing, living, until I stopped breathing.
I would like to first speak with you about my physical battle. I was lucky because I only had to battle cancer for ten (10) seconds. Many times during my karate training, I would get fatigued and my body’s “turn off engine” light would flash, but my instructor would stand over me and bleat, “Anyone can do anything for 10 seconds.” And I did.
When chemo gave me nausea, when I had to bite a prosthetic mouth piece to keep my tongue from moving before a mask was strapped and buckled to the radiation table to immobilize my head during radiation treatments, when the radiation burnt my throat and tongue, when I could not eat, when I could not drink because I couldn’t swallow and I had to write because I couldn’t talk and I had to hydrate through a feeding tube . . . I said to myself “anyone can do anything for 10 seconds.” And I did.
One day my instructor told me that in battle, short of an undefended blow or gunshot to the head or directly to the heart, I would probably have at least ten (10) seconds of full faculty before I lose consciousness. “Defeat being inevitable,” he asked, “what will you do?”
This was just a surface question, I knew, and I knew 10 seconds could be 10 minutes or 10 years and the real question he was asking me is, “What type of a warrior are you? Are you the type of warrior who fights until you realize you are defeated or are you the type of warrior who fights until you can fight no more? Do you capitulate when defeat is inevitable or do you spend your last 10 seconds fighting to maybe give someone you are protecting the split second they need to flee or counter attack? Do you give up or do you keep fighting for those last 10 seconds so you can maybe hamper your foe enough to keep them from hurting anyone else? Do you quit or do you keep fighting for those last 10 seconds so others who witness your battle, hear of your fight, or neither see nor hear but intuit your valor, are inspired to fight on?”
I am not a hero; I am not a soldier or a cop or fireman or doctor. I do not see people die on a regular basis in my line of work, but I knew my answer to my sifu’s question because I have seen the last 10 seconds of some pillars of my life who were very important to me.
I was alone with my mother in her last 10 seconds and it was very difficult for her to continue breathing. She was the most giving person I ever knew, and despite her 17 year battle with leukemia, she never missed a football game or wrestling match and she was a mother to others whose parents could not be around. Our high school started a fan of the year award in her honor, which I believe is still perpetuated after close to 40 years. As an adult, I would let her know it was OK to let go, but being just a week over 16, I begged her to keep breathing and as difficult as it was, she kept breathing as a precious gift to me until she could breathe no more. She spent her last 10 seconds giving.
I was with my father in his last 10 seconds. He had lung cancer. He was an extremely successful and courageous man who never accepted defeat and lived every day of his life to the fullest until he collapsed in my arms and died. Without missing a moment of what his life had to offer, he spent his last 10 seconds living.
I saw the last 10 seconds of my grandmother’s life. At her funeral, a blind women’s choir sang and it was attended by the Boy Scouts, Presbyterian, Greek and Antiochian churches and many other groups to whom she donated her time. The attendees were bewildered that she could dedicate herself to any other philanthropic group because of her resolute commitment to their own. I was the first of our family to arrive at her home after the police told us she had been murdered. Except for ever-present newspapers she tucked in a corner for the Boy Scouts paper drives, her tidy home was in complete disarray. I saw a dish rack in the middle of her living room floor and I still wonder how it got there. I saw the aftermath of a ferocious battle and intuited she spent her last 10 seconds fighting.
These are people who inspired me in my battle; these are the people that gave me my answer to my teacher’s question – giving, living, fighting – this is how I will spend my last 10 seconds.
And the Greeks have a dance for the last 10 seconds. It is called the dance of Zalongo, which illustrates the marbleization of dance and the life, fight and faith of the Greek people. In 1803, while the men of the Zalongo village had set off to battle, an Ottoman tyrant surrounded the village and demanded the surrender of the women and children. The women knew that if they surrendered to a tyrant they would be enslaved; they would no longer be able to live freely or do the things they enjoyed with the people they loved for fear of being discovered by an oppressive tyrant who outlawed such associations and activities. They would not be able to openly practice their faith.
So they did not surrender. Instead, they flung their children off a cliff then danced and sang their way off that same cliff, you see. They had a choice - death or tyranny? And they chose death.
Like the women of Zalongo I refuse to accept the tyranny of cancer and I encourage you to do the same by never letting it define you. Engage in all you are physically able to enjoy, pursue your purposeful endeavors, spend time with people you love, do good, pray and grow in your faith because these are the things that define us - cancer never will.
Now I want to talk to you about lessons of my spiritual fight after laying out the battlefield and identify the enemy.
The battlefield is not just “us” versus cancer - it that of “good” versus “evil.” I know some stricken by disease question their faith. They ponder how there can be a God that allows war, famine, the death of innocent children and the like. This query, however, is a bit oxymoronic. The Lord’s Prayer in the original Greek text does not conclude “deliver us from evil”; it concludes “deliver us from the evil one.” It is not God’s plan to create evil– it is God’s plan to “deliver us from evil,” to battle evil, to battle the Evil One who is responsible for these atrocities.
I believe God battles the evil of cancer in ways including the advancement of medical science. Instead of causing me to question my faith, cancer caused me to grow stronger in my faith and it brought people I love closer to God. People who learned of my condition picked up crosses, rosaries and icons they had not touched or seen in a long time and visited holy grounds, temples, churches and other places of worship that in some cases they had not been to in years. Intimate relationships I had became more so as we developed an even more profound appreciation for each other. All of this is good. And I am not happy I had cancer and I am not happy my family went through what it did, but I am astounded how so much good came from the utter evil, and I marvel at the splendor of God’s transubstantiation of utter evil into such abundant good.
When I first began to pray for healing, I noticed my prayers started with asking to be healed and then moved on to asking the Lord to strengthen me and my family to deal with what I was going through and to protect them from what the future might hold. From there my undirected prayers ambled their way to forgiveness. I asked to be forgiven for maybe not being the father, husband or provider I could have been or to forgive me for not fully exploiting the talents God gave me to do His Will.
As Greek Orthodox do I asked Saint Nectarios to intercess in prayers for my healing and I went to the Saint Nectarios Greek Orthodox Church in West Covina where the priest placed the saint’s relics upon me and prayed over me. Afterward the priest and I talked and he told me that I did not need to pray for healing. “God knows what you want,” he said, “Pray for forgiveness.” I found it ironic that “forgiveness” was the same destination to which my unmapped prayers wandered.
My most profound revelation, however, came to me a year earlier while praying for a dear friend of mine who had been diagnosed with cancer. I wanted to pray for her with unmitigated fervor, but there were two or three parishioners who I felt betrayed me at one time and for whom I long held bad feelings. The only way to purge that taint from my prayers in order to timely deliver them with the purity this angel on earth deserved was for me to forgive. I could no longer rely on my anguish passively diminishing over time – she needed my prayers now. I had to let go. And I did.
This “forgiving” was an Epiphany for me. Up until that time I “got it” that forgiving was good for me physically because it reduces tension and improves health; I got it that forgiving was good for me mentally because it relieves stress and allows me to think more clearly; and I got it that forgiving was good for me spiritually because it brings me peace and it brings me closer to God. But what I did not “get” was that forgiving is necessary in order for me to pray for the good of others. So to those who care about you and ask “What can I do?” perhaps you can enlist them in your battle against evil by suggesting that along with their prayers for you to consider asking for strength to forgive someone against whom they hold hard feelings. I did. And my former Judas who I forgave on the day of my epiphany were now praying for me and for my healing. It is because of their prayers and the prayers of others I know and those I do not know that I pray harder still to be forgiven because it is impossible for me to muster humility commensurate with the blessing of being cancer-free.
So this is my story. And it is a great story. And seldom is a great story wholly true. My story is a re-gift of stories given me by others or incidents of God’s will, forged by me to derive meaning. Now that I have told you my story it is your story. From this time forward it will be what you tell others. You truly possess it - but so do I.
I believe my mother spent her last 10 seconds “giving,” my father spent his “living” and my grandmother spent hers “fighting” and I know I will do the same. I believe the women of Zalongo flung their children and themselves off a cliff because they refused to let a tyrant, like cancer, define them and I believe it is God’s will to advance science and that I stand here today because of both prayer and science and neither to the exclusion of the other.
I believe this because it rightfully honors the virtues vouchsafed to me by my faith, family, culture and people I love, but most of all I believe this to be true because it gives my life story meaning.
And now I want to talk to you about your life stories, and I want you to consider footnoting the following excerpt in your own stories because if you are here this evening, it is probably because cancer has visited you or someone you love. It is called “Man in the Arena” which is taken from Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 “Citizens of a Republic” speech. As I read this short passage see if this resonates with you or someone you might know.
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
As a steward of stories, I beg you consider footnoting this passage because it describes every man, woman and child I have ever known who has battled with cancer.
Allow me to close with another Greek custom by leaving out the door in through I came by repeating the admonition I gave in my opening – “be careful how you interpret world. . .” I urge you to go back now and re-examine your life stories and the stories of those who have vouchsafed their virtues to you. I implore you to trash whatever pulp you have let seep into your stories and if you cannot trash it then take that pulp and work on it and forge it into meaning so like those before us we can pass along to future generations the incredible masterpiece of our collective saga.
Thank you for inspiring me to make meaning of my battle and allowing me to share my story with you.