I Am Still Here

What would I do if I were diagnosed with a deadly cancer? I cannot write about this subject from a hypothetical standpoint, having been diagnosed with lung cancer in January 2006; but I can relate a bit of my story, share a few insights, and talk about where I would like to go from here…

In January of 2006 I was diagnosed with combined small-cell/non-small-cell lung cancer after surgery to remove a goose-egg-sized tumor from my right bronchi. A very surprising development for a healthy 43 year old non-smoker.

Certainly there were some decisions to be made. This particular type of cancer is very deadly, with a 5 year survival rate below 5%. How were we (my wife and family) going to fight back? How were we going to attack it? And how was I going to even think well enough to make a decision while recovering from my operation while in a morphine induced fog? I was fortunate to have a great deal of support from my family.

It was clear that my team of medical professionals were not optimistic. There was consensus, however, that it couldn’t hurt to throw everything in the book at this disease. The tumor had already been removed along with 50% of my lungs, and of course there was chemotherapy and radiation. We decided to be very aggressive with the chemo and radiation, which kept me in the hospital for the better part of 6 months. But what, really, did we have to lose? We even went the extra distance and prophylacticly radiated my entire brain, because this particular type of cancer usually migrates to the brain, and chemo doesn’t go through the brain lining very well. This procedure is rarely done, and there was some risk that my brain might suffer some injury from it.

And why stop there? I tried acupuncture and massage, cleaned up my diet, and started an exercise routine. I believe all these things are contributing to my recovery. Granted, I do not have a control group for comparison, but certainly none of these activities is harmful. And there is one thing I know for sure: if I don’t try, if I do not put my sincere effort into it, then I cannot succeed.

I have had the pleasure, for several decades, to teach guitar and cello to students in private lessons. My most successful students have, surprisingly, not been the ones with the most talent, but the ones who have put in the most effort. Doing anything well requires significant effort, and it is no different recovering from a life threatening illness. Positive results may not always surface in direct proportion to the effort, but no effort ensures no results. My intelligence, strong body, and talents are all gifts from God, so the least I can do is honor these gifts with honest effort towards survival.

It is almost cliché to hear people say, “I almost died today! My whole life passed before my eyes!” But anyone that has encountered their own mortality and is granted the time to react to it knows that there is an element of truth to these words. The long and short of it is that after 4 years of cancer (in remission, thank you very much!), chemo, radiation, scans, endless needles, more familiarity with the oncology and radiation departments than I would wish on my worst enemy, neuropathy, chronic fatigue, counseling, collapsed lungs, IC units, septic strep/A, brain injury from the brain radiation, loss of job, loss of memory, and sadly, divorce, I am quite dramatically altered. And I have had lots of time to think. I certainly do not look at life as I did before my illness. Without expounding on the details, here are the kinds of rambling thoughts that run through my mind every day…

Take care of your body. Spend quality time with your family. Having a body that can shovel snow is a privilege. Be compassionate. Slow down. There is very little in life worth stressing over. Just keep swimming. Right now is great. Shoveling snow is great. Spend time with your friends. Be kind. I have way more stuff than I really need. Stuff is overrated. People are underrated. There are few things more important than helping someone in need. The meaning of life is to bring meaning to life. Forgive. Relax. Apologize. Is my agenda really all that important? Give. Don’t just tolerate people; accept them. And on and on…

I count myself lucky that my spiritual beliefs, while certainly not mainstream, had me well prepared for the ridiculous onslaught and injury I managed to survive these past 4 years. I am prepared to die. I do not seek death, but neither am I afraid of dying. Death is simply the last stage of life. But it is a stage of life, and it deserves thought and preparation. Perhaps I am slightly curious about what might lie on the “other side”, as well. But the important thing here, is that by not fearing death, I have been able to focus not only on battling and surviving cancer, but on living.

And live I will. Even though the doctor visits and scans are not done, I have decided, one month shy of my 48th birthday, to return to college to pursue degrees in music and physics.

It may sound like an odd combination, but I started college 30 years ago as a music major, and with 2 years complete, I would like to finish what I started. As for the physics, I always dreamed that I would retire and start a twilight career as a theoretical physicist. I read about astrophysics, nuclear physics and similar subjects regularly. To me, it is all fantastic science fiction, and I am thrilled to be living in an age of such wild imagination and discovery. But why wait to retire? Death is closer, perhaps, than I know.

I am very fortunate. I am still here. And there is no time like the present to engage in life. I have people to meet, challenges to overcome, and wonders to discover. So what will I do after being threatened by deadly cancer? I will live with all the gusto I can muster. And I’ll let you know how it turns out…

By: Croll, Walter

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