Coming to Terms with the 'Sign Language' of Cancer


As I walk around the senior community that I live in, I notice the stark reminders that life is an impermanent adventure.

The other day on my morning walk I noticed an unusual uptick in the number of "Home for Sale" signs in my gated community here in Arizona. I was surprised by the sudden rush of melancholy I was experiencing and decided to examine the thoughts and feelings that these signs were provoking.

Long before breast cancer showed up in my life, I had a deep interest in Eastern art and philosophy. I simply found Zen meditation and Eastern culture to be relaxing, illuminating and inspirational.

Coincidentally, it was during my year-long apprenticeship living in Hawaii at the Palolo Zen Center studying meditation that I was diagnosed with male breast cancer.

And it was there that I had the chance to see the impermanence of my life as something more than a just a catchphrase. After all, things come and go, and those thoughts we have about things do the same.

After my mastectomy surgery when my wife and I made the choice to retire in Arizona we were attracted to the idea of living in an active adult community. We are both avid pickleball players (a tennis-like court sport) and enjoy social events such as line dancing and music concerts (before COVID-19). But I had a subtle hesitation about moving into an over-55 community for the simple reason that I expected the death rate to be statistically higher here. I didn't like the idea of losing friends, whether it was to natural causes or diseases like cancer.

As we approach our sixth year here in the neighborhood, we have lost just one close friend to cancer so it would appear that my concerns were unfounded.

But something about those "Home for Sale" signs that pop up fairly regularly still give me pause. These placards of change offer a promise for the future to some and a reminder of our past to others.

Most of the time these are folks moving on to some new adventure; perhaps to be closer to their kids or downsizing to make life a little easier. But since my wife and I are committed to spending the rest of our lives here, I know that someday in the future that sign will stand before our home as a final farewell to the time we've shared on Earth.

Many people may think the impermanence of all things is an unpleasant fact we'd rather turn away from. We see the world around us, and most of it seems solid and fixed. We like to stay in places and in situations that we find comfortable and safe, and we don't want them to change. Intellectually we might understand that things are impermanent, but we don't actually perceive things that way.

The reminders we have of our limited days are sometimes obvious, like the occasional scare that our cancer may have returned; and sometimes subtle as in the "Home for Sale" notices we see on the streets. And with regard to our impermanence here on Earth, these messages are much more than markers of past lives.

They are a sign of the times.

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