Life goes on after a cancer diagnosis, but it's never quite the same.
Two lives. That’s what I’ve been given.
For a long time, I tried, in vain, to make sense out my male breast cancer diagnosis by attempting to find a link between my life before cancer with my life after cancer. It never worked.
Cancer has given me two very different and very separate experiences — the before and the after – and there is simply no way to reconcile the discrepancy between the two. At any rate, for me that has made all the difference in how I see my disease and how I interpret its significance in my journey today.
A large part of the anguish that I felt with my breast cancer diagnosis was in the realization that I would have to give up pieces of my life that had great meaning to me. “Perfect health” was a big one. As a competitive runner for nearly 40 years, I was proud of my healthy body and my ability to run repeated marathons. Cancer took that away. I gave up the thought of ever having a chest that looked “normal.” And I gave up the steadfast belief that I was certain to live long enough to be an old man. Cancer erased much of what I had assumed to be true.
I spent some time pondering this new life I was living, and was able to identify an earlier experience that was similar in many ways.
Seventeen years before my own breast cancer diagnosis appeared in my life, I was the caregiver for a patient who battled stage 4 ovarian cancer for several years. Those of us who have been thrown into a similar challenge may understand the magnitude and difficulty of the task, and also perhaps the heartfelt compassion that can grow within us as we dedicate our own lives to aiding another human being — one who is presented with the challenging task of surviving a debilitating disease.
That cancer patient I’m speaking of was my wife.
When we were married, 21 years before her death at the age of 47, I expected to spend a lifetime at her side, growing old together and living out our mutual dreams. In talking with others over the years that have lost a friend to cancer, this is pretty much what we all expect. But cancer, in its ultimate and terminal form, has the power to nullify all that we have and hold dear. Conversely and ironically, it also has the ability to lend a new and empowering depth to our time on Earth. Her passing, as I saw it, was both elegant and unruffled as she carefully worked out the details of how she wanted her life to conclude. And those who knew her — myself included – were inspired by her courage.
But in the ensuing years, the thought of building another relationship with someone who I had yet to meet was incomprehensible to me. How does one take two decades of experiences and put them on “hold” to start anew? How is it possible not to compare every new encounter with those of our past? And most importantly, how do we reconcile the feeling that we are “abandoning” the memories of a loved one by re-writing our life story?
Ultimately, I realized that this is an unsolvable puzzle if we are unwilling to accept that we are actually capable of living a complete, unique and brand new life that does not need to incorporate and combine our past and future, and that in doing this we are in no way diminishing our former experiences.
I learned that my former life, remarkable as it had been, was now over. Naturally, the memories and old friends and favorite conversations I’d had were still intact, but they no longer applied in the new world in which I lived. It was seven years later that I found my new partner and was married for the second (and presumably last) time.
That realization has helped me to understand that my pre-cancer life and my current one will always be separate. And I feel lucky in many ways, to be able to live this reprised life—even though cancer exists here.
I now feel that I can move on with a renewed capacity to experience the freshness in what each moment may bring. And most importantly, I can fully accept that this whole cancer experience is part of the deal I’ve made with life itself. I’ve been given a second chance. A new beginning. An extended trip. This is the encore. And my hope is to live it boldly and without hesitation, right alongside this crazy cancer disease that has come along for the ride.