Back in the fall of 2002, nine years after my initial diagnosis of thyroid cancer – and hearing for four years that I was cured – my doctor found, to his great surprise a lump in the area where my thyroid used to be. The pathology report indicated that I had recurrent metastatic thyroid cancer.
Post surgery, I was given a bone scan and an MRI of my brain to see if my original cancer had spread beyond the thyroid area over the years it had gone undetected – even though thyroid cancer very rarely travels to the brain. The bone scan showed no abnormalities – but the MRI revealed that I had a mysterious lesion on my brain. A biopsy to determine what we were dealing with was deemed too risky because of its location. We would have to wait three months for a follow up MRI to see if the lesion had grown.
Though I had no physical symptoms, like seizures, loss of vision, imbalance, which was a good thing, I was all too aware that I had had no symptoms at all when, on two other occasions, I had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
Emotionally, I was battered by conflicting feelings of disbelief, grief, hope, worry, confusion, fury, optimism and fear.
During this interval, my mother passed away from complications of a stroke that she had suffered four years earlier. My father had predeceased her by only three years.
When you have even one living parent, when you are still someone’s “child” you feel protected again death. After all, the “default” pattern in life is that parents die first.
With the passing of your second parent, you become the “senior” generation, and you in turn become the buffer for your own children and grandchildren, for it is you who is now at the front of the “line.” There was no running and burying my face in my mother’s protective lap to make the “boogyman” go away.
The news was good. The still unidentifiable lesion had not changed. I was to have more MRIs – six months later, then annually, and finally every two years. At my next to last visit, my neurosurgeon stated that he would discharge me as a patient after one more MRI, since the lesion had remained the same for over seven years.
That MRI took place last year – but I am still his patient: the lesion had inexplicably changed – it had gotten smaller. The doctor was so intrigued – and no doubt puzzled by this unexpected event – I will continue for the time being to have an MRI every two years.
Although the change was in the right direction, I would have preferred a continuation of the status quo. A parked car stays put. A car that moves – can change direction at any time.
But disconcerting outcomes seem to happen quite often when I have tests, blood work and scans to see if “the coast is clear” in terms of the cancer. There is always something they have to scan again or take a closer or second look at.
Ironically, these scares (that luckily are just that – scares) have made me into a more appreciative and happier person. When you are often reminded of your mortality, you learn to let the “small stuff” role off of you. It’s easy to get furious or stressed out while you are stuck in an airport for what seems like endless hours because of a flight that is delayed or canceled, but when you realize that you are alive to take that trip, that you are healthy enough to get out of bed and make plans and act on them, then an inconvenience is just that – an inconvenience and not worth frothing at the mouth over and sending your blood pressure into the stratosphere. You learn to not only stop and smell the flowers but to linger and enjoy their soft texture and take in their vivid colors.
In terms of the number of years we are allotted, quality can sometimes make up for quantity. Quality is attained through hakarat hatov. Appreciation for the routine, uneventful moments that make up the fabric of our daily life enriches us and leads to happiness. Something as mundane like eating a bowl of cereal for breakfast can induce simcha if you “think” about it. You can eat and taste and enjoy. You are able to walk to the cupboard, pour the cereal in a bowl, hold a spoon and swallow its contents. If you take a moment to absorb this and the myriad other run of the mill abilities you mindlessly take for granted; if you make yourself aware that your life is suffused with bracha- then you will feel joyful day after day after day -no matter what stresses, hassles or aggravations come your way.
Is it such a benefit to have “langeh yahren” ((literally long years, but meaning a long life) if you are miserable, morose, bitter and unappreciative day after day after day?
I was fortunate that I was never really that physically sick when I had my cancer and treatments. Yet due to my awareness of the real possibility that I might die sooner than later – I was able to gain very valuable perspective and understanding on how to live.
Making it a habit to appreciate everything in your life – your physical and mental abilities; the people who you are connected to; and not wasting too much mental energy on relatively minor annoyances and detours – will lead you to be b’simcha, a state of being that is a contagious gift to those around you.
I know that there is the proverbial “sword hanging over my head” that could “drop” at any time. Close to 18 years ago, when all the medical personnel fled my isolation room before my doctor handed me the lead-lined canister containing my radioactive iodine pill, I asked him if all this radiation that would be making its way down my throat, past my lungs and into my stomach and through my body would not GIVE me cancer. He told me that we had to deal with the cancer I had now, not what may or may not happen down the road. Almost two decades later, and after having had to swallow a second, more potent radioactive iodine pill – “the road” may be closer. Or not.
If it is Hashem’s will that it is, I know I will walk it with less regret and less sadness, fortified with the knowledge that I was given the opportunity to appreciate the beauty, chesed and grace that landscaped my every step. That landscapes everybody’s steps – if only they open their eyes.