WHAT CANCER CANNOT DO
Cancer is so limited.
It cannot cripple Love.
It cannot shatter Hope.
It cannot corrode Faith.
It cannot destroy Peace.
It cannot kill Friendship.
It cannot suppress Memories.
It cannot silence Courage.
It cannot invade the Soul.
It cannot steal eternal Life.
It cannot conquer the Spirit.
Somewhere Towards The End, a book by publisher and author Diana Athill, is a memoir that won the Costa Book Award for biography, given to writers based in Britain and Ireland. Written in her 80′s, she reflected on her life and as she comes to the end of the book she writes about the realization, ”… that from up here I can look back and see that although a human life is less than the blink of an eyelid in terms of the universe, within its own framework it is amazingly capacious so that it can contain many opposites. One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving – and also more particular opposites such as a neurotic conviction that one is a flop and a consciousness of success amounting to smugness.”
Do not ask me why, but my thoughts immediately jumped to Jim Chastain and I realized that if we are not careful, all we remember about him is that he died at a young age.
His life, of course, has been full of all the things Ms. Athill wrote about. There has been tumult and heartbreak - cancer, chemotherapy, loss of an arm and now the reality that his time with family and friends will be much more brief than he’d imagined.
BUT….there has been much serenity and happiness as well – college was fun and he made friends like Don and Shelly Greiner, with whom he’s stayed close all these years.
College is also where he met and married LeAnn, followed by the births of Ford and Maddye and a law degree. Jim became a published poet and author. He is a screenwriter, a film critic and a bright and fun and zany man who loves life and when life did not go as planned, he was able to make it useful.
Jim looked for everything funny in his first bout with cancer which resulted in the loss of his right arm and he wrote an honest and thoroughly delightful book chronicling those experiences. Everyone should read it.
Now in another time of tumult with this new bout of cancer which threatens to end his life earlier than what he’d imagined, he continues to make those dark times useful. This time he has graciously and with great courage invited us to read over his shoulder and when we read what Jim or Oklahoman staff writer Ken Raymond is saying, it is important we read all of it – not just the bad, but the good, the loving, the friendships, the delight in his wife and children, the passion for writing and living and the determination to make it all count for as long as he has breath.
There is much to be learned from Jim and his family through this dying experience, but equally important is that there is much to be learned from the way they have lived and are living each day – following their passions, staying in touch with friends and always making new ones, loving and supporting each other, and being honest about the hard times – which come to all of us.
As Athill reminds us, the glass is never half empty or half full, it is both. As you read what may be Jim’s final chapter, be sure you focus as much on the full part as you do on the part that leaves us feeling empty and sad.
From Roger: ” Well, shut my mouth. I mean that literally. Here I am feeling sorry for myself and then I read today’s column. I literally shut my mouth, my whining and my self pity and once again reminded myself that my life could be a hell of a lot worse!”
“Teenagers need to be told the facts over and over. They need for their worries and concerns to be heard again and again,” says Dr. Wendy Harpham, Dallas physician, mother of three, and lymphoma survivor.
The teenage years can be a tumuluous time for children and their parents under the best of circumstances. When a parent has cancer, the stresses can be even greater.
Encourage them to spend time with their friends and to stay involved in extracurricular activities. This gives them a break from the seriousness at home.
Talk with them honestly and listen to them without interruption. Encourage their talking to other safe and caring adults – teacher, coach, minister, relative.
Teens should be informed when the circumstances change, so that additional support can be provided when needed.
Support groups with other teens going through a similar experience and/or investing in professional counseling is worth considering because they will learn some skills for moving through change and loss that will benefit them as they move into adulthood.
A good resource is the book When a Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children, by Wendy S. Harpham, MD.
Jim Chastain and I sat across the table from one another at Metro Wine Bar and Grill sharing lunch last week. Jim is a young man in his 40’s who has been told his cancer is terminal. His physicians tell him he has months, not years.
We talked about his dying like some people talk about the weather. We didn’t dwell on it, but we both acknowledged it and then intentionally turned our attention to the day at hand.
All of us live, love, hurt, change, age, and die. Knowing that however doesn’t mean we have to like it and I can assure you, Jim Chastain is not at all crazy about the idea of dying before the year comes to a close.
He is an attorney with a promising career, a writer, a poet, a man with a great group of close friends, a husband who adores his wife, and two teenagers, for whom he’d give his life in a heartbeat if it would save theirs.
He is having a difficult time, however, trying to make sense of how his death at this age would benefit anyone in his family. He doesn’t want to miss growing older with his wife. He doesn’t want to miss watching his teenagers grow into adulthood. He doesn’t want to miss birthdays, graduations, career choices, weddings or grandchildren. He wants to write more poems. He wants to live to be old and wrinkled and bald. Losing his hair to chemotherapy is just not the same.
I watch this man as he mentally struggles to back away from the precipice of the “what if’s” and return to this day and what he can do now. He puts it down on paper – in a journal or in the form of a poem. You can read over his shoulder as he writes what may be his final chapter on The Oklahoman website: www.newsok.com/jimchastain.
His willingness to share his thoughts, feelings and daily choices of how he spends his time is a gift to the rest of us. While someone with terminal cancer is told they have a limited amount of time to live, in reality that is true for each of us. Happily ever after is only in fairy tales.
Whether I live one more year or twenty, I am learning from Jim that the antidote to the fear of death is to embrace the possibilities of where I am now.
Perhaps you, too, would like to join me in pondering, “If this was the last year of my life, what are the choices I would want to be making?” Mine are: to listen deeply, love without limits, and live with intention – like Jim.
FROM JANUARY 22 COLUMN
I asked Deloris for permission to share her thoughts on this blog. After reading Jim’s story in The Oklahoman on Sunday, January 11, she emailed me to say her husband died of cancer in December of ’08 and like many of us, she learned from that experience about the coping skills people have when faced with that kind of health crisis.
Born and raised as a farmer, her husband was a man who did not give up even if the hail storm destroyed everything he had and even if he had to go in debt to keep going. He’d always get up and plant again. And in the same way, she watched him go through his bout with cancer.
She wrote: As I observed my husband and other cancer patients, the strengths they had formed from prior challenges they had met in everyday living – and then used them as a learning tool – were able to handle the cancer challenge better.
She also spoke of her husband’s faith that gave him comfort in knowing he was not alone and she is aware this positive attitude and will to live will get her through the challenges of life that she now faces.
She also sees in Jim’s story that he and his family will live life fully for as long as it lasts and believes he is truly blessed that he can express himself in so many ways to give understanding to others facing similar challenges, and says she will follow Jim’s example.
Writing a note to someone with cancer is a good thing to do - as long as we pay attention to the words we use. What you say, of course, depends on how close you are to the person to whom you’re writing and how open that one is about what is happening to them. Many people prefer to keep their health issues private for professional or personal reasons and that needs to be respected. If you’re not sure, perhaps you could ask someone close to them.
For someone you don’t know well or someone you haven’t seen in a long time, you might write, “I heard you were in the hospital. I don’t know the details, but I just want you to know I wish you well.”
If you know the person and the prognosis is optimistic, it could be as simple as “Hope all goes well at the hospital. I look forward to see you as soon as you’re ready for visitors.”
To someone you know well who has had a diagnosis of breast cancer and for whom the prognosis is optimistic, something like, “When I heard your news, I was devastated, then I think of all the women I see going on with their lives and doing well. I hope you’ll be joining that club.”
Always check your note for any hint of a ”should”. A statement like “You have to beat this” may mean well, but it actually puts pressure and responsibility on the patient. If they don’t get well, they can easily feel like they’ve let you down. One lung cancer patient said, “Don’t call me a fighter. That means if I don’t win, I’m a loser.”
Another reason to avoid shoulds is they can shut off communication by sending the message that you don’t want to hear anything negative. So instead of “shoulds” stick to “I”. “I think.” “I feel.” “I feel you are going to beat this.” You might even say, “If it were me, I’d be a nervous wreck.”
Address the treatment, rather than what the outcome might be. “I hope this chemotherapy/radiation period will go quickly.” “I’m not sure if you want visitors or not. Would you like me to come over? I’ll bring the dessert or do you feel like going out?” Remember anyone who isn’t feeling well, has no energy to entertain you and it is always thoughtful to add, “If you don’t feel like going out or having company, that’s okay, too. Just know I am thinking about you.”
In some instances, you can give a goal. “Our New Year’s Eve party will be complete if you can be there.” This gives a goal without imposing responsibility on the person. That is much more helpful than “You must be at our New Year’s Eve party.”
Just finding ways to say you care is what it’s all about. One lady wrote to a relative who had a mastectomy, “It hurts my heart to think of what a rough time you must be going through. I wish you healing ahead. You’re on my mind always.”
For a cousin who had a cancer recurrence, another wrote, “This isn’t fair. You’ve been through so much already. You’re in my prayers.”
When the outlook is bleak you don’t want to say, “I hope you’ll be back home quickly, but you can write notes like ”I know this is a difficult time. My thoughts are with you.” “You’ve touched my life.” “You’re my favorite neighbor – the best I could ask for. Please know I care.”
To a coworker, “I miss your particular brand of humor.”
To someone close to dying, you can relate a story about something special you’ve shared. “Today the hyacinths came up and I remember the day we planted the bulbs together.”
Maybe send an article, a story or a poem with a note, saying, “I’m not good with words, but this touched me. I wanted to share it with you.”
Offer help only if you really mean it and don’t promise more than you are willing to deliver. “I’ll call Saturday to see if I can drop off a pie that you or your visitors might enjoy.”
We always mean well, but sometimes we are thoughtless in our choice of words. Write carefully.
I’ve been out of pocket over the holidays and am finally getting back into the routine. I find however that even when I take “breaks”, life does not. It just keeps going. A long time friend has progessed in her Alzheimer’s disease, a son died and two special friends continue the challenges of living with cancer.
I learn from all of these folks – life is short, tend it well, and never, never, never, give up.