Monday, November 30, 2009

November Anniversaries

This past month (or so) included many milestones, anniversaries and news. The instances were good and bad - sometimes wrapped in the same package.

Cancer has been all around, beyond just pancreatic and even more so than usual.
October ended with heartbreaking news for me (again). Tony was a new friend I had been introduced to by a former co-worker. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about a year before I was. He had the Whipple surgery, chemo and radiation just as I did. Tony was my pace runner of sorts – a survivor whose story I could look to with hope and pride. We compared notes on our lives and lifestyles before our diagnoses and since. He was doing well but was undergoing some more chemo because of some suspicious spots on his lungs. After months of corresponding by email, we had finally met in September. A few weeks later, he had sent out a happy message to announce that the spots had disappeared and he was done with his treatment. Only a few days after I sent him an email of congratulations, I learned that he had passed away after an adverse reaction to a flu shot. It is a devastating tragedy that defies all reason. It is only as I write this that I can finally recognize that I have been angry with my God ever since.

On the eve of November, Halloween was the anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. This year, in stark contrast to last, it was a day to celebrate. After all, I wasn't sure that I was going to make it this far. But, on the flipside of that celebration, is the memory of the most crushingly sad and terrifying days of my life.
The day after Halloween was a glorious day of running the NYC Marathon. I had to do it - to prove that I could and to pick up where I left off last year. And the day after that was my birthday. A day that I feared I would never see. It has been an unforgettable year that can never blend into the 42 others for me.

The memories of my November 2008 are being replayed too vividly as I watch a dear cousin struggle with the painful process of the signs of cancer being confirmed this November. Of a similar age and place in life, I hate that he and his family have to share in this experience. And yet, there is also tremendous love and cause for optimism for him.

As it happens, November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month. The intent is to raise awareness of the fact that pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States—and has the highest mortality rate of all the major cancers. This year, 42,470 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and 35,240 will die from the disease. The number of new cases and deaths caused by this deadly disease are increasing not decreasing. Again, though very sad, there is still much hope and work to be done.

Like many emotional wounds that never completely heal but serve as lifelong reminders, I am trying to make good use of my awareness. I am willing to offer support to anyone that could use it, but wish more than anything that there was never the need to. Unfortunately, I spoke to two women this month being profoundly affected by pancreatic cancer. The father of one was just diagnosed and the second is a patient seeking out a surgeon herself. It helps us all to know that we are not alone in our struggles and pain. Along those lines, I would like to publicize a group called Imerman Angels. It provides one-on-one cancer support: connecting cancer fighters, survivors and caregivers. Imerman Angels partners a person fighting cancer with someone who has beaten the same type of cancer. Please let others that you think might benefit from such a connection know about them (

The new month also marks the anniversary of a new beginning for me – Dec. 1st is a year since I had the surgery to remove the evil cancer from my body. It feels as if a huge reservoir of love has been zip-filed into that void. Thank you all for that.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Everything Happens For a Reason

I began writing this entry at a bar on a Friday night, while dinner guests were arriving at my home. I was in the midst of waiting one hour for the next train after my usual 5:12 pulled out one minute early. People say that everything happens for a reason.

I hate that phrase. It strikes me as vague and detached; so amorphous as to be meaningless. The insight of the statement rivals that of observing that "the sun rose again this morning". I recognize that folks mean well when they say it, especially in the absence of anything better. When life seems out to get you and you are getting less than you deserve – it may help to blunt the non-sense of it all. But it sounds passive to me - implying that we should not get angry about or respond to any turn of events, because there is some beyond-us good reason for it.

But that's just it…the important thing is the reason. When it comes to explaining God's will (cosmic forces, fate, or whatever you choose to call it) we can't end up anywhere but short. Our little minds and our limited vantage points can't possibly know the reason why personal tragedies (to pick extreme occurrences) happen. So, the overused cliché attempts to explain away our lack of understanding with ambiguity. Though we may lack the vision to perceive why it's happened, it is solely up to us as to what we make of each day on which the sun has risen. Our free choice can fill the vacuum; we create the reason…or not.
Given that "everything happens for a reason", then there must be a reason that I am still here. My spiritually gifted friend Eric suggested that it was not my time (to go) yet, because God still has a plan for me. That thought made me simultaneously swell with self-importance and cower slightly at the awesome responsibility of it all. Maybe the reason is "merely" Ana and Noah. Though there are too many instances of parents ragically ripped from their families - or (worse) kids taken away from their parents.

My challenge is to identify that reason. I haven't been able to completely discern that yet. I am feeling my way towards it – like looking for that light switch in the dark. Any help, whether human or divine, would be much appreciated. I (only half-) joke about God sending a huge neon arrow to point the way for me.
All I feel I can do sometimes is to put myself in the best position to find out. That, in turn, requires that I get out of my comfort zone. The familiar can anesthetize us to the wondrous potential in life and in people. There is no denying that, like the rising sun, the reasons are right in front of us every day.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Life Changers

There are many things that can change your life. Often they are events or experiences. Sometimes it is people whose paths we cross. Occasionally it will be an object or thing. The intersection may be brief but leave a lasting impression. Or the impact could be deep and yet the effect relatively fleeting.
People will talk about books that changed their lives. Maybe a classic like On The Road that shaped a teenager's aspirations or a memoir that opened up a new world. It could be that BMW that you've always imagined yourself zipping around in; or that charming Victorian in the lovely neighborhood next door to where you grew up.
It might be the grandmother that relayed tales of courage and sacrifice during the war and never shows anything less than boundless respect for everyone she meets. Or the college professor that brought you a world of ideas that you'd never considered before but apply every day.
It could be the end of a loving relationship, the tragic loss of a child or quadruple bypass surgery. This weekend brings together two of the events in my life that have changed me forever.
Saturday the 31st was the first anniversary of my initial cancer diagnosis. It was mid-afternoon last Halloween after my first endoscopy when my serious Syrian GI specialist told me that based on her experience and what she had seen, that I likely had pancreatic cancer. It would be a few days before a biopsy confirmed her dire prognosis. To say that I was stunned is, of course, an understatement. Suddenly empty might describe it better. The saying goes that some things feel like "it was a lifetime ago". The start of this cancer journey for me, almost literally, is. Halloween 2008 is like that day between BC and AD in my personal life.
On Sunday, I ran my sixth NYC Marathon. I was on the verge of running it last year til I started turning orange and evil cancer stood firmly between me and the starting line. Thanks be to God, I was able to drag myself through the 26 miles this year in a respectable 4 hrs and 25 minutes. My slowest time yet – but then again I ain't getting any younger either.
I credit my first marathon experience and every one since with many lessons that prepared me for this cancer marathon. I entered my first one in 1997 just so that I could one day tell my grandkids that their grandpa once ran through his great hometown. I got much, much more than mere intergenerational bragging rights out of that run. Most importantly, I discovered that there is nothing that I cannot do if I put my all into it. Also, I learned to appreciate that not all suffering is automatically a bad thing to be avoided at any cost. Finally, I developed a sensitivity to the goings-on in my body that I still relish and has served me well throughout this illness.
As it turned out, several of my life changers have built upon each other. I've read the book, had the teachers and many friends, listened to grandmothers and watched loving relationships end. Each seems, in hindsight, to be a deliberate preparation for this ultimate life changer. I imagine and hope that it won't be my last.
Today was yet another significant day – my 43rd birthday. Now that I've run the race, I am just holding out til the grandkids arrive so that I can tell 'em the story.

PS – The thing about life changers is that they are not automatic. They can be brushed under the heavy carpet of our life's history. It may be easier not to alter our comfortable trajectory. But potential life changers ignored are like opportunities for growth left on the table - and that is nothing short of a terrible shame.