How I Learned to Live After Learning How to Die From Cancer


A pancreatic cancer survivor explains how he learned to live after cancer and reflects on lessons learned from the book, “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

Nine years ago, I faced the news no one wants to hear: that I not only have cancer, but it’s pancreatic cancer. With few seeing two years and most not seeing five, I am cosmically blessed to still be around.

Back then, I didn’t think I would be there for any of my three daughters’ big days to walk them down the aisle. Thankfully two are now married and I’m holding out for the third.

Over the past few days, I have been reading “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom, a New York Times best-seller for over four years. I am surprised I didn’t read it sooner. It chronicles the story of Morrie Schwartz, one of Albom’s sociology professors at Brandeis University, who was facing Lou Gehrig’s disease — also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

For those who might not know, ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that systematically shuts down a person’s muscles always leading to death. Unlike many cancers, there is no cure.

In the Navy, I had a neurologist friend who worked at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego where he specialized in treating ALS. He once told me, “I get to know my ALS patients so when they can no longer speak, I will understand what they need.” All these years later this dire statement remains with me as though he said it yesterday.

While at Brandeis, Mitch and Morrie became quite close, meeting on Tuesdays to chat about life and the meaning of it. On graduation day, Mitch promised to stay in touch with Morrie, but like many of us, life happened, and his thoughts of his friend faded away.

Years later, now a high-flying sports journalist for the Detroit Free Press with his life moving in fast forward mode, one evening while flicking through some channels, Mitch happened upon ABC’s “Nightline” where Ted Koppel interviewed Morrie about his ALS.

Feeling bad he had not stayed in touch with Morrie as he had promised, soon Mitch flew from Detroit to visit with his dying friend in West Newton, Massachusetts, about 10 miles outside of Boston. This set in motion a series of Tuesday visits with Morrie, hence the book title, “Tuesdays with Morrie”.

When they met, rather than talking about Morrie’s certain death, they chatted about life and the meaning of it much as they had done at Brandeis. Among the many things they talked about were not feeling sorry for yourself, living with regrets, learning to forgive and the importance of family. All topics of interest to anyone facing cancer.

For those of us who have faced cancer, it is all too easy to feel sorry for ourselves. We shouldn’t, but we do. One way to avoid this is to realize no matter how bad our cancer news may be, it could be far worse.

For instance, I’ve discovered that although pancreatic cancer is horrific, for the most part a death sentence, there are other cancers where the survival rate is better, but the treatment regimen is far worse. Don’t feel sorry for yourself.

Learning to live with regrets is easier to talk about than to do. We all have cemeteries of regrets buried in our pasts. Tombstones of things we said or did, sometimes awful things, opportunities missed. While we would like to go back and get a do-over, we can’t. What was said or done is forever. The opportunity is lost. We can’t go back and change anything. Everyone has regrets. Learn to live with them.

This leads to learning to forgive. This speaks not only to forgiving others but forgiving yourself and moving on with our lives. Thus, a key part of learning to live with regrets is learning to forgive, not just others but ourselves too.

Lastly, the importance of family cannot be understated. Most people except for our families won’t or can’t sit with us during our chemo sessions or visit us each day in the hospital especially when we’ve been there for weeks.

Facing death is so overwhelming, and our friends don’t know what to say let alone do. While they are sad for us, they are at the same time thankful it is not them. As close as some friends can be, they’re not family and never will be. Missing a DNA connection to us lets them off the hook to be there for us. (I do have some awesome friends, but it is not the same as family.) Family is beyond important.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the book for me was this simple point, “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” Let that sink in.

I suppose this is one of the blessings of cancer if we’ll take it onboard. Most of us live our lives for ourselves. We involve others when it's convenient but other than that we focus on surviving rather than living our lives. Then cancer happens to us. Everything changes.

If you haven’t read “Tuesdays with Morrie,” read it. It is so helpful, especially if you are facing cancer or have survived it. It offers a thoughtful discourse on not feeling sorry for yourself, living with regrets, learning to forgive and the importance of family. Remember, “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”

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