Accepting Cancer With Grace


My experience with non-Hodgkin lymphoma taught me to be grateful for the people I love and who love me.

Illustration of a man with gray hair and a gray goatee.

One of my favorite poems when I was younger was Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” a poem he wrote for his dying father urging him to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” and not to give up without a fight. To me, the poem was what any young person might say looking at another half century or more of life ahead. Young people seem to think they’ll live forever. When I was older, I became friends with Thomas’s daughter, Aeronwy. She even appointed me as the judge of the Dylan Thomas Prize for an American poet under age 40 (Thomas died in New York City in 1953 at 39 years old).

But my ordeal with non-Hodgkin lymphoma taught me something I hadn’t expected. I was 59 years old; not a young man any longer. Not half a century was waiting for me. I didn’t rage against the possibility of my death like I thought I would. Instead, most every night, my wife and I lay in bed holding each other and talking honestly about my possible fate. We made decisions together. We planned for what might come. We drafted and executed a durable power of attorney for health care decisions.

I got the chance to say my farewell while I was clear-headed. Although I would have loved another two or three decades with my wife, I didn’t rail against the possibility as Thomas would if he was me. I accepted what may come with grace. That doesn’t mean to say I gave up in any way. I still went through the chemotherapy protocol as prescribed by my oncologist. I spent my weekly hospitalization every month with a positive attitude, and always with a sense of humor and smile for everyone I encountered. I did my best to maintain my wasting body. The cancer wreaked havoc on my body, but not my spirit. I still had weekly coffee with my best friends. I still thought of the future as a place where I belonged and where I wanted to be. In between my last two hospitalizations, when I was at my lowest, I even went to Harvard University for a week to earn a special certificate in leadership. 

Needless to say, I survived. I’m still here. For how much longer, I don’t know. But I’ll gladly take whatever time I’m given. Cancer taught me something I never expected. It taught me to be grateful for the time I have and for the people I love and who love me in return. I hope you learn the same lesson.

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