After a Cancer Diagnosis, How Do We Measure Our Lives?


Cancer reminds this survivor that we are much more than our bodies.

According to a recent article in Wired magazine, a human body could be worth up to $45 million dollars as calculated by selling the bone marrow, DNA, lungs, kidneys and heart as components. I'm modestly embarrassed to admit that at the age of 22, while living in Northern California in a commune during the early 70s, my musician roommates and I were desperate for rent (and probably beer money), and we heard that we could actually sell our bodies to science for a tidy sum.

The idea was, or so we had been told, that if we signed a contract to donate our bodies for scientific research (at a hopefully much later date) we would be given a wad of money to spend as we wished. Needless to say, the several hospitals we called to offer our "services" greeted us with a good deal of disbelief and incredulous good humor. They weren't buying our sales pitch. The rent would have to wait. The beer was another story.

Looking at your own body from the standpoint of chemicals only, you may be surprised to know that 99 percent of the mass of your body is made up of the six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus. Adding up all of the amounts and values of the chemicals in the human body then would only deliver a cash payment of just over $160. That’s if, in fact, we could sell our bodies. We can't.

But of course, we are talking only about raw materials here: the stuff that holds us together, and the organs that pump and pulse and flex and constrict to push our physical bodies out of bed each day that we're lucky enough to be alive.

But what about us — the real "us"? What about our very lives that exist through our feelings and thoughts and emotions and hopes and dreams? It's interesting to note that these things I've just mentioned are influenced, if not controlled, by the chemicals that inhabit our bodies. Body and mind work together it seems, and perhaps it's also true that our thinking and healing work in tandem.

I have breast cancer and I can't change that fact. But I have plenty of power to influence the way I let this cancer shape my future? Why should any of us measure our future by using the tarnished yardstick of cancer? We've made it this far. And that in itself is a measurement of strength and stamina.

Those six life-giving elements that I mentioned earlier are under attack from the physical damage of cancer. But the magic that makes us human, those yearnings and dreams and friendships and achievements that put the spring in our step and the hope in our hearts, all resides in a place cancer can never touch. And it's here, in that immeasurable sum of all of our parts where a disease may take our life away, but never the value of who and what we are.

I wonder if our true value is as simple as our willingness to live and grow in an unpredictable world, or perhaps it's the love in our lives rather than the length of them that becomes the best measurement of a life well lived.

What do you want to leave behind? How do you quantify your human experience? Cancer has a way of unlocking so many miracles. And milestones. And measurements. So, how do we measure our lives?

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