Cancer and Coming to Terms With Some "Last Things" You'll Ever Have


Some quick lessons I’ve learned from a desert tortoise.

My wife and I recently adopted a desert tortoise from the Arizona Desert Museum. These animals are listed as “threatened,” and once one is found injured they are returned to health before being put up for adoption, never again to be released to the wild.

The first thing I was told when I participated in the lengthy application process was that this tortoise would definitely outlive me. They can easily exist for 80 years, and since I am 66 as I write this, it would be big news if I survived to be 146 years old, outliving this new addition to our family.

And so the museum insisted that we include the tortoise in our will, insuring that the animal would be cared for or, at the very least, returned to the museum rather than being released in the desert after my death, where it would be certain to perish.

And that’s when it “hit home”— this very notion that I actually have things in my life now that I will not live long enough to replace. At first I was horrified by the thought of it. I always believed there would be one more vacation, one more new car and one more day.

As a cancer survivor, I have learned to treat every day as if it could be my last. After two-and-a-half years of living this way, it has become a way of life.

But the truth is that I am very likely living in my last home. (I’ve bought and sold six of them in my lifetime). I’ve most certainly run my last 10k race or marathon since arthritis has invaded both of my knees. I always expected that I would take another backpacking trip in the Sierras, but that is not likely to happen. I assumed that I would need to purchase several more computers in my lifetime as the technology improves—but perhaps not.

These final subscriptions to Netflix or last new cars in the garage are making it clear to me that the impermanence of life is alive and real.

Having cancer does not necessarily shorten the experiences yet to come, but it certainly forces us to become aware of the brevity of our presence on planet Earth.

There are, it seems to me, a couple of ways to look at all of this.

Either we shrivel and diminish at the horror of all that we know coming to an end, or we marvel and rejoice at the miracle of our very presence. Cancer survivors have a bit of an advantage here.

Our disease presents us with an opportunity to know the future. We get a preview of what’s to come—not just for us but for all of humanity. Depending on how we feel about it, this can be a very profound experience.

Why is it so difficult for us to recognize the transience of life while we are young or healthy? We adapt to life the same way we adapt to cancer. If our cancer is not “active” we quickly learn to smooth out all the rough edges of our unknown future, to slip into our “autopilot” way of living and to coast a little as we slide through the months and years.

It’s a human talent that allows us to cope with the stress of a life that perhaps is all too brief and sometimes includes cancer.

The bottom line is: I’m not ready to cancel my membership to Costco or my subscription to CURE just yet. After all, I still have a meaningful and rather unpredictable stretch of time before me — and a desert tortoise to tend to.

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