Looking Death in the Eye: A Cancer Survivor's Perspective


This is probably not about what you’re thinking.

The word “death” can certainly be a trigger word for many of us. “Cancer” is another one of those terms that demands our attention. This is a story about death, or near death, as told by a cancer survivor.

But it’s probably not about what you’re thinking…

It’s a story that stirs me to the bone, even as I write these words. It’s a story that brings with it a simple yet compelling view of the subtlety of life’s great gift and, speaking as a cancer survivor who has looked at death from a fresh perspective, an opportunity for me to be aware of every breath I’m given in the remaining years I have.

Living with male breast cancer has taught me to appreciate not only each day that I have left, but also how every seemingly small and insignificant experience has the potential to teach me something important, if only I pause and listen to the message.

Take, as an example, my encounter with a lizard earlier today. I was in the kitchen cleaning up after lunch. Suddenly my wife, who was standing near our front door, shrieked, “How could you do that?”

She was in tears as she ran into our bedroom and I, thinking one of our cats had somehow been injured in my office where I keep lots of musical equipment, cords and gadgets, dashed into the room looking high and low for the cat in question.

“What?” I shouted to my wife who was still too upset to answer. “What is it? What’s happened?”

I feared the worst.

Then I looked out the front door, which was open with a screen to keep out the insects. Here in Arizona we have crickets and yes, cockroaches and the like, and I had placed one of those sticky insect traps just outside the door, hoping to intercept any scorpions that might be interested in slipping into our home.

Instead, I had caught a beautiful Arizona lizard, one of my favorite animals to watch and enjoy from my office window. My wife was visibly and understandably disturbed by the gruesome scene.

It’s difficult to explain the horror I felt, both for my inability to consider the consequences of such a trap, and the very thought that I had likely given a death sentence to this hapless creature who had made the mistake of walking onto my porch, most likely in search of the very insects I was trying to eliminate.

These traps, if you’re not familiar with them, consist of a tiny plastic dish, filled with an incredibly sticky green gooey substance that adheres to everything it touches. Once a cockroach gets in, there’s no exit. Like quicksand, the more the insect struggles, the deeper it’s pulled into the green pool of death. I never intended to catch a lizard.

I picked up the trap with the lizard in it firmly impaled, and found that my thumb and finger were now stuck in this smothering, hideous snare that offered nothing but death to every creature venturing near.

I felt sickened and sad as I attempted to pull the lizard free without damaging his tiny body. But even as I was able to dislodge his upper body without injuring him, his tail and legs were stuck together in the tangled and utterly obscene result of the carnage I had created.

I ran to the kitchen and grabbed a butter knife. Then I tried to push the knife through the sticky glue; under the body of the trapped lizard in order to pry him out. Each time I freed a limb, another part of his fragile body became impaled elsewhere. The idea of killing him, to end his suffering, flashed through my mind. But a much more incessant voice in my head demanded that I try to save the life of this innocent prisoner. As I continued in my attempts to remove him I began to question my own beliefs about living and dying. I realized that I was willing to kill an insect, but in some unfathomable way, the lizard’s life seemed bigger and more deserving. How is it possible to make this distinction I wondered? Who was I to decide the value of a life?

He never struggled, my lizard, and he never knew if I was about to end his life, or save it. My heart sank with every moment of the ordeal. Even if I was able to free him, I needed a plan. Could I wash his skin with soap and water? I was desperate for answers.

Then I noticed his eyes. Such tiny eyes, so innocent and perceptive. I could see his pupils following my every move as I struggled to free his soft and susceptible body. He watched the movement of my hands and even though everything I’ve learned about animal behavior has taught me that a tiny reptile is incapable of emotion, of judgement or feelings of compassion or love as we know it—I stopped believing all of that at that very instant. I found myself speaking to him, apologizing for my stupidity.

And suddenly, in what I can only describe as a moment of astonishing understanding, I realized the significance of the tragedy I had created. I saw myself wriggling in my own desperation, stuck in the glue of my unbending, inflexible disease, pinned down and imprisoned by the circumstances of my fate. It was me in the trap. Cancer had a grip on me, and I was held so tightly by its power to highjack my life that I had almost forgotten how to set myself free.

At last I had him in my hand, though his legs were still sticking to the sides of his body. I wondered how he could ever again be able to run along my sidewalk or sit so regally on the tall flower pot just outside my office window. And then it came to me. The answer was dust.

I ran with him to the back yard, located a mound of fresh, dry soil in the garden, grabbed a handful of the dust and rolled his tiny body in it; much like one would roll a chicken breast in flour before adding it to the frying pan. And it worked. His limbs were free, his body was soft and warm to the touch, and he began to wriggle in my fingers.

I found a shady spot in the corner of the yard, and turned him loose.

I know that we human beings have the ability, perhaps even the need to create anthropomorphic stories in our lives, to attach human characteristics to animals. I want to believe my cats love me. I want to think that my lizard was cognizant of my intention to save his life and to know somehow that I felt compassion for him. I don’t know about any of that, but the lesson I’ve learned from this encounter was really much simpler and much more powerful. I learned that a life, any life has an exquisite right to exist, to be free and to be cherished.

And I learned that the very hand that imprisons us can also be the hand that sets us free. And more often than not, that hand is our own.


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