The Benefits of Cancer

One of my best friends is dying of cancer. Cousin David has Stage IV pancreatic cancer and the sand in his hourglass is quickly spilling down. He was diagnosed nine months ago at the age of 67 with a rare form of this deadly cancer, and bought some time with heavy-duty chemo. His black hair quickly turned silver and when the chemo stopped working, it amazingly turned black again.  (That fascinates me!)

Like many others, I have friends and family that have survived cancer and also died of cancer. And while it’s true that CANCER SUCKS it’s also true that cancer has benefits.  Cousin David’s journey has shown that to me. For one, he is not dying of Alzheimer’s. ALZHEIMER’S SUCKS, and Cousin David was convinced he was going to get it. His mother, aunts and uncle had it so he assumed it would be his inheritance as well. He was so afraid of the burden it would create on his husband Jon that he prudently invested his money so he could spend it on 24/7 nursing care. Shortly after Cousin David got his diagnosis, I said, “Well Cuz, THANK GOD you’re not dying of Alzheimer’s!”  He completely agreed. “I’m SO relieved!,” he said.

I encouraged him to take the money he saved and spend it on fancy travel and whatever else he wanted while he was still feeling well enough to enjoy it. “Your job now,” I said to him, “is to make the rest of your life the best of your life.” And it wasn’t just about travel or spending money, it was about love. As news of his cancer spread, SO many people started shining their love at him. He became a rock star! Everyone wanted to talk to him, see him and give him their love and attention. He had no idea he was so loved! It was almost too much to absorb.

Naturally, being the recipient of so much unabashed love is good for the soul. It healed many stories David carried around of himself, especially growing up in 1950s Texas when he suspected as a young child that he was gay. The fear of being “queer” was devastating and impacted his self-esteem. Who could possibly love him? Cancer showed him that the world loved him. “If you had suddenly died of a heart attack,” I said, “you’d never know how much you were loved!”

Ironically, the other gift cancer gave him was time. Most of us take time for granted, assuming there will always be “more.” Terminal cancer doesn’t let you do that. It shows up like the encore performance at a concert. It signals that the show is about to end. So David has been inhaling life, moment-to-moment, and finding joy in those pursuits he treasures: traveling to New Orleans, Portugal and Santa Fe, and relishing the splendor of his backyard garden in Madison which he’s been lovingly tending for five years. This past spring provided him with the most exquisite display of flower and foliage – like the grand finale during a fireworks show.

In addition to treasuring the beautiful moments in life, cancer enabled David to thoughtfully share some of his own treasures with others. A small leather-bound prayer book from the 1920s was presented to me in June. “This belonged to my grandfather – your great-grandfather,” David said. “He gave it to my mother in 1947 when she left Jerusalem to move to the States.” I placed the prayer book next to an old photo of my smiling great-grandmother and delighted in this special memento full of mana. And, to my sister Doreen, he gave his mother’s engagement ring. She and my great-aunt Reina always had a special bond, and the sparkling ring came to life anew when my teary-eyed sister put it on her finger.

Cancer also pushed David to get his affairs in order. While there’s a lot he’s going to have to let go of, he was able to triage and prioritize the paperwork and legal documents that mattered most to him. Like preparing for a long trip to a faraway land, David had enough time and clarity of mind to pick and choose what he needed to do.

And most importantly, cancer opened David’s eyes to spirit. Never a religious or particularly spiritual person, David’s now accepting the possibility that there is something “beyond.” He’s read books like Proof of Heaven and Emmanuel’s Book and is not afraid of dying. He’s sad that his life is ending, but there’s nothing he can do about it and he’s embracing the adventure that awaits him. His pragmatism is remarkable.

Witnessing Cousin David’s journey has made me realize that none of us can assume there is “more” and that it is okay to receive the love from others now, to marvel in the beauty of our gardens now, to put our affairs in order now, to start fulfilling our bucket list now, and to treasure our lives now. If David is getting the benefits from cancer, then I can learn from them and make them my benefits too. And though I am devastated to know I will have to say farewell to my beloved cousin soon, I know I will see him in my dreams and always be connected to his vibrant and loving spirit.