Ok. I’m going to be straight with you. This is not a post about how to live forever and I am not an expert on that particular topic. At all.
If anything, this is a post on not living forever, even when your death still feels impossible. Like today. I presented the opening plenary talk for a major conference in my industry. I shared my work with them and they got excited about what they could do with it. About what we could do with it together. And I smiled and exchanged ideas. And in the back of my mind, I thought, “Will I even be around for this?” And then I thought, “Of course. It’s unthinkable that I won’t.” In that moment, it really felt unthinkable.
But later, when I was alone, I knew better. It’s not unthinkable. It’s something I have had to think about a lot over the last couple of weeks.
The cancer I was treated for in 2015 is back. The good news is, it’s curable. The bad news is, they don’t know how to cure it.
The cancer I had was rare to begin with—it was a small cell tumor that presented in my breast. Small cell usually presents in the lungs and occasionally in other sites. But never in the breast. Well, almost never. And it has since defied other small cell rules—fairly long time to recurrence (good), local recurrence instead of systemic (good), and less than optimal response to chemotherapy (bad). All of this means that the doctors are a bit…. befuddled… about how to proceed.
When you have cancer, you don’t want your doctors to be befuddled. One oncologist told me that when it comes to choosing my systemic treatment (which will accompany radiation), I may just have to flip a coin. Maybe “flip a coin” is the official medical term for something important. Maybe it doesn’t mean what I think it does.
While I generally focus on life and curability and positivity and community and all the resources I will need to muster to step back into the ring, it is impossible for me to escape the possibility that I might die. I mean, of course I will die. We’ll all die. But that I might die soon.
So I’m a little more obsessed with death than usual. Today I read a political article that included a reference to the founder of the Breitbart “news” site and it said, “before he died…” and I found myself jumping to Wikipedia to figure out how he died. Heart issue. Instant death at 43. And I wondered—would that be better? To go instantly? Would it be worse? If he had to die at 43 and he had a choice about how it happened, what would he choose?
And as I was reading about Breitbart’s death, it struck me as funny that this is a person with whom I probably had nothing in common. Honestly? If I had known he existed back then, I probably wouldn’t have liked him much. But here I was, wondering what he would think of his death. About whether he would do it over if he could. Absent any judgment of his political ideology and with only the purest of curiosity about the humanity of another. Because for all our differences, neither of us will get to live forever. At some point—and, with any luck for me, it won’t be soon—we will share death.
[I feel compelled to note that this post was drafted last week. I now have a treatment plan (!). More on that another day, if I decide to keep writing.]