Discovering the Cancer — 1987
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I was in Dallas three years ago to give a talk at a fitness festival. The day before, I had challenged Dr. Ken Cooper's treadmill and had broken the record for my age group, 65-plus. Afterward, as I lay on a table recovering, I felt as if I were joining the immortals. Despite my age, I had performed in the 99th percentile of the 70,000 tests done at the Aerobics Center. Then Cooper announced he was going to give me a physical examination. Before I could protest, I was stripped down and experiencing what anyone experiences in a visit to the doctor. The results of this examination (which led to tests that would eventually discover a malignancy) made me face my own mortality. It hardly seemed possible that only a week before I had been fretting about the normal vicissitudes of life - my running, for one. My race times had deteriorated over the past year. I had rarely thought of my aging before; now I was becoming preoccupied with it. I had reached a point where no amount of training made me improve. My writing was boring me. Many times before, I had thought that I was all written out. This time it was really true. When I took on a subject, I found I had done it before - and better. No phrases appeared that did not land with a thud and then lie there lifeless. But I had known all these defeats in the past. The cycles came and went, as fundamental as the seasons and as unchangeable. I should have made up my mind to treat them as a fact of life, to accept that even champions have their slumps. The best of all know the worst of times - and use those experiences when the bright, beautiful, productive days return. The news I received in Dallas gave me that different perspective. Even before the results of tests were in, my future had been decided. My life had been unalterably changed. Psychologist Abraham Maslow called the years subsequent to his heart attack his "post-mortem life." It was a time he viewed as a gift: hours of appreciating what he had taken for granted, days used in the best possible way. The notion of a post-mortem has even more implications. Post-mortems are done to ascertain the cause of death. A post-mortem life should uncover what was wrong with the previous one. How should I have lived that I would now be content? Why did I not bear my fruit, bring my message, reap my harvest? What became of the "I" that was to be? The questions multiply. One's life, which had previously seemed well ordered, is seen to be neither ordered nor well. So much of life passes without our being in it at all. For me, this is especially true about other people, I have not entered their lives, nor they mine. At about the same time my problem surfaced. I heard a former United States senator tell of his reaction on learning he had a malignancy. He had resigned from the Senate, but not for medical reasons. He could have finished his term satisfactorily. His reason for leaving was the heightened awareness this malignancy has given him. He had re-examined his life and then determined to live it in a different way. He discovered that the people in his life were more important than his position. The big question is how one should live one's life. Writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno had this answer: "Our greatest endeavor must be to make ourselves irreplaceable - to make the fact that each one of us is unique and irreplaceable, that no one can fill the gap when we die, a practical truth." After receiving my news, I learned I could do that - make that fact a practical truth. I will be irreplaceable. I will leave a gap. Each day, family and friends have affirmed my importance to them. But like the senator, I have also learned the corollary of that truth. There are people in my life who are irreplaceable. No one can fill the gap when they are gone, I now know who they are. When you are between the sword and the stone, you know whom you want standing beside you. When time is short, it becomes obvious who the essential people are in your life. People who know they have cancer have a motto: "Make every day count." I have done that. What I have not done is make every person count. My life has been filled with the best of me. What it has not been filled with is the best of others. I now know that Robert Frost was right. I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep..