Thursday, March 14, 2013

I'm Going to Live Until I Die

I think most people are discounting Valerie Harper, who recently disclosed that she was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer to the brain in August 2013.  Certainly, cancer in the brain is horrible, horrible news. But I have learned, while living with metastatic cancer myself, that there are many who live for long periods of time after the cancer has spread. Harper's doctors originally only gave her 3 months, but as she has said, ”I’m well past my expiration date already.”

And that is the attitude I do my best to take about my own metastatic cancer. My favorite quote from Harper so far is, "When the smoke clears, I'll be standing, until I'm not."  Valerie Harper has decided to keep living.  Critics respond by saying she is "not being realistic."  And here's what I say to that type of feedback.  You want this cancer?  I'll happily give it to you. Let's see how you "live" your life.  Would you want to be "realistic" and sit on the couch of death until you die? What if you live another 20 years?  Do you really want to have lived your life focusing only on the fact that you're dying?

I occasionally look at websites where other Stage IV patients gather to chat. This can be a dicey experience for the newly-diagnosed. Many of the participants on these lists are experiencing recurrence after recurrence of their cancer, battling the disabling side effects of chemo and the progressing cancer.  The posters to these sites are doing their best to live in hope, and provide a great deal of compassion to each other. One poster on the list, though, particularly caught my attention.

She had been diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer 10 years prior.   When I saw that number, I thought, "Ten years?  My goodness how wonderful. She's lived 10 years past her diagnosis." But the tone of her web post did not express wonderful.  She talked about how, because she had been newly single at the time of her diagnosis, she had just started dating.  She went on to say that she had not dated since her diagnosis.  Then she continued with a list of all of the other things she had not done in those 10 years, and the physical side effects of her treatment.  Now side effects are a nasty reality of past or current cancer treatment, and they are worth complaining about. But my distinct impression was that this individual had received her diagnosis, and had decided she was dying. So she lived the next 10 years as if she was going to die any day.  She was right. She is going to die. We all will.  But the years she had gotten past her supposed expiration date did not sound pleasant. In fact, they sounded very unpleasant, she sounded very bitter.

I can't control the fact that I have Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. But I can control how I live my life now that it's here. As the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox once said, "With every rising of the sun, think of your life as just begun." This is one of the good side effects of cancer. The disease has brought my life into a new perspective.  While I have not necessarily changed the way I'm living, I certainly am much more aware of enjoying the way I'm living.  Dinner with a friend.  Seeing a touring Broadway play. Hanging out with my dogs. Sending funny t-shirts to my grand nephew, Klaus (the latest states, "Keep Calm, Dude").  These are the little things that make up a good life.

Another great quote from Valerie Harper, “Don't go to the funeral until the day of the funeral."  I've never really liked funerals myself, so I don't want to be constantly attending my own virtual funeral, whether my life lasts for another 2 years or for 20.  So like Ms. Harper, I will continue to be "unrealistic," and I will be standing, until I am not standing. I am grateful for Valerie Harper's courage in speaking about her cancer, and her courage in continuing to live in spite of the negative opinions of other people.  One website that recently posted an interview with Valerie Harper,  provided readers an opportunity to give feedback, asking "Do you think Valerie Harper is being realistic about her diagnosis?"  My question is why are others so anxious to bury Ms. Harper before she's gone? I'm going to say, keep kicking, Valerie. Because, to paraphrase a quote from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "You're not dead yet."  And neither am I.

Also published on CureToday