Live every day as if it were your last. How many times have you heard a self-improvement expert say that? But what if it’s your doctor saying it because you’ve been diagnosed with cancer? Is it the ultimate wakeup call for you to finally start appreciating every minute you are alive? If that kind of news doesn’t do it, what will?
The day I got the diagnosis I was in a state of shock and tried to practice being a stoic as the doctor broke the news to me in the kindest way he could, having been in that role of bad news giver many times before. Perhaps my putting on a brave face was to cover up a deeper feeling of disbelief and ultimately denial. There was also a sense of sadness, feeling life was too short as there was a lot left to experience and accomplish. At the same time, thoughts of family and friends tugged at my heart.
One certainty remains after you’re born – you will die. Most people never believe that day will come and do whatever is in their means to put off that final stage in life. Sad fact is that nobody can avoid it no matter the number of health treatments, vitamin supplements or exercises you indulge in. (Taxes are often said to be the other unavoidable element of life but if you can afford a good tax advisor at least you can dodge that bullet.)
It wasn’t part of my daily reality to ever think too much about facing the final exit. For many years I’ve eaten a mainly a vegetarian diet, exercised most every day and practiced yoga and meditation to live a ‘healthy’ life. At my annual exam in March this year the doctor did a routine ultrasound to check my liver, kidneys and other organs. To both our surprise the images showed something going on with one of my kidneys that wasn’t there a year earlier. I did a CAT scan to get a more precise diagnosis. During the wait from the first exam to the final analysis I would alternate between hope and denial, not believing anything serious or untreatable would be the result.
A week after the scan an appointment was made for me with a doctor I hadn’t met before – never a good sign. He pulled the image up on his computer and explained in his best English (I live in Switzerland) that I had a tumor that had overgrown half of my left kidney. I was surprised, shocked, saddened and angry. He said the disease is totally random but I said I believed it was the result of working in very high stress environments for many years at several corporate headquarters. Either way, I couldn’t change anything now.
I took the news calmly as he explained that due to the extent of the disease the treatment was removal of the kidney. I tried to be a stoic – don’t worry about what you can’t change and not giving in to unnecessary emotions. The doctor explained he’d been doing this procedure for 20 years and it would be done in a top clinic, which was reassuring. It was a relief when he also had time in his schedule to do the operation in two weeks. Then the fun began – waiting for the day I would be in the hospital. Even though I had confidence in the doctor that he could do the job well with the result I would be cancer free, surgery on a vital organ is never a reassuring event.
Two weeks is plenty of time for your brain to go into overdrive as every doubt and confusion imaginable makes itself known. I’ve been practicing meditation since I was 17 and while my daily sessions allow me to enjoy the peaceful place inside, carrying that experience forward is always a challenge, especially when diving into the corporate world I called home for most of my life. But now, more than ever, that feeling of contentment and completeness was needed as an antidote to my chattering mind and to give me the equanimity to get through my days before and after the operation. I was assured my prognosis was good and there was nothing to worry about but the nature of the human mind is to worry, which can at times seem easier to do than being content. This was the point where connecting to my breath, to be in the present moment, became my lifeboat whenever fear or uncertainty would surface.
In a pre-operation meeting with my general practitioner to assess my readiness she asked me out of the blue: ‘are you happy?’ I answered: ‘I think so’. (I was trying to sound positive but maybe I was a little stressed!) She then said, if you have to guess, then you’re not happy, so why don’t you take up drinking and smoking? This good advice was of course only a metaphor for living a full and enjoyable life. At that moment the idea of a glass of wine didn’t seem too out of place.
I was one of the lucky ones because the cancer was detected early enough and I could have the surgery fairly quickly. After the operation a follow-up body scan disclosed no further activity so I was pronounced clean and no need for further treatments like chemotherapy. It’s been sinking in lately how life-changing the whole experience was as you can’t get that close to the exit door and walk back without seeing how fragile our existence is.
The incident created time for reflection on what was important in my life. Looking back and also to what lay ahead, the word kindness came to mind. I saw I could’ve exhibited more kindness through the years and while having no regrets, decided to practice this quality more in my days going forward. I would like to believe that the experience of having ‘the wind knocked out of my sails’ produced a humbler version of myself, enjoying each moment to the fullest. Time will tell. My biggest takeaway: life is shorter than we think, so learn to appreciate each moment and be grateful for the gift of being alive.
A couple of months after the operation I was attending the Montreux Jazz Festival with one of my sisters and her husband. On the closing night Quincy Jones was presenting his lifetime of music. The performance included a song from when he was being mentored as a teenager by Ray Charles: Let the Good Times Roll. My sister suggested this could be my new theme song.
Hey, everybody, let’s have some fun
You only live but once
And when you’re dead you’re done
So let the good times roll
Let the good times roll
I don’t care if you’re young or old
Get together, let the good times roll