Column: Selfless or Selfish

Column: Selfless or Selfish

Just in case anybody is paying attention, and my behavior plays some kind of role/has any effect on my outcome whatsoever, I’d just as soon be one more than the other. However, receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis (stage IV and let me remind you there’s no stage V) out of the blue at age 54 and a half, less than three months after burying your widowed mother, tends to upset this delicate balance. If I’ve heard it once – since my diagnosis – I’ve heard it multiple times, and from trusted, respected sources: “It’s all about you, Ken.” And when the oncology nurse sticks that needle in your arm for the first time and then hooks you up to a six-hour I.V. drip containing chemotherapy drugs “cocktailed” to poison you (kill your tumor-carrying white blood cells actually), the decision about whom to care about most, you or someone else, begins to take on a life of its own.

Controlling that other life has become one of my biggest challenges. It’s very easy to lose yourself in the midst of a metastatic malignancy when your oncologist gives you “13 months to two years” to live. For all anybody knows, it’s your attitude or even your personality that keeps you alive as your treatment ramps up. However, thinking and doing for others is extremely difficult at this time, a time when you can barely get out of bed. Chemotherapy has a way of leveling the playing field: You can’t do anything for anybody, least of all for yourself. As you begin to bounce back after your treatment (if there is an interval), you semi-regain your composure in anticipation and preparation for the next infusion. Nevertheless, before too long, the mental demons begin to take hold yet again, attempting to tear down every emotional underpinning you’ve devised. No one said it was going to be easy. In fact, one of our best friends, Lynne, a recent breast cancer survivor said quite the opposite: “Ken, this is going to be the hardest thing you’ve done.” Of course, she was 100 percent correct.

Over time and over treatment, you begin to assimilate the demands: the infusions, the frequency, the doctors’ appointments, the diagnostic scans, the lab work, the side effects, the straight-on effects, the highs, the lows, the hopes, the prayers, the statistics; until it becomes, at least for me it has, sort of mundane and part of a process that takes over your life – for some very unfortunate reasons. You accept it because: it appears there are very few exceptions. Cancer rules and thinking it doesn’t is disrespectful almost and incredibly naive.

Giving respect to such a dreaded – but previous to my diagnosis, not a part of my family’s history – disease, helped guide me back to becoming more selfless and less selfish; understanding that reclaiming that dignity and integrity in this context anyway, can have a powerful effect on both myself and those around me, which in turn works back to me (the old what goes around comes around-type karma) and ultimately benefits and enhances my life. The longer I’ve survived with this diagnosis, the more characteristic of the pre-Kenny-with-cancer I’ve become. That’s not to say that I don’t occasionally slip and fall – emotionally, but now, getting up is not nearly so difficult. I’ve been there, and I’ve done that. Besides, I’m happier being me, and happiness can work miracles.