What cancer has taught me 584 days into my battle

As some of you know, I had prostate cancer in 2009 and by the looks of the pathology report, it seemed like a bad one.

Part of my own unique experience of being a cancer patient is that I also happen to be a cancer biologist.  You might think this would be helpful, but really it just left me “knowing too much” for my own good.

My diagnosis was especially a shock because I was “only” 42 at the time, while most prostate cancer patients are decades older when they are diagnosed.

Shortly after the diagnosis, I had surgery literally across the street from my lab here at UC Davis Med Center.

About six months ago I did a post on my experience with prostate cancer about a year out from surgery.

At this point today, I have made it out  to more than a year and half (18 months) from surgery, 584 days to be exact, with no sign of cancer (knock on wood). Actually, I have not been counting, but every so often I think about where I am relative to that landmark of cancer surgery. Of course, in a way the more time that goes by the better even if I do not want to be getting older.

Sometimes I worry the cancer will come back, which is part of the continuing battle with cancer, but not so often anymore and I have a positive outlook on the future.

In most ways, my life has gotten back to “normal”, although there is a new “normal” for me as I have made some changes for the better too that I think that I probably would not have made if I hadn’t had cancer.

How is my life different now, different for the better? I think cancer has taught me a lot.

Stop “killing time”. Do things you care about and do them now. We spend a frighteningly large fraction of our lives doing things that do not matter to us. We feel that we have to do this or that. We end up spending a lot of our life on things that we do not care about. These are things that probably make little if any difference to anyone else (even if they tell us we are supposed to do them) and that no one will remember a year down the road. It is a trap that many of us fall into. Immediately after my cancer surgery, when I was really just trying to feel better and deal with the new reality of cancer, I was not doing much of anything. I felt horrible. So I was not doing almost any of the things I normally would do in life, and although I missed some of these things, I realized that many of them actually did not need to be done. I also came to understand that many of them were a waste of time.

So I asked myself a whopper of a question– why do these things if I don’t care about them?

The answer I came up with was “Don’t!”

Instead, do things you care about and do them now, because you just never know about tomorrow.

I’m not advocating blowing off your job even if you don’t care about it or ignoring other serious responsibilities, but rather the point is to make time for things that really matter to you and spend less time on other stuff. I don’t think anyone reflects sadly on their death bed that they didn’t spend more time getting those last few dust bunnies from under the bed or didn’t attend more committee meetings. Every hour you spend “killing time” by doing some stupid thing is in a way a form of suicide by small iteration. You are killing your life one hour at a time when you kill time this way. I say–Stop it!

Find a way to make a difference. I like to think that my research is making a difference. But now in addition another way that I try to make a difference is as a patient advocate and a part of that is through this blog. I also find it rewarding to help other patients who are in a similar boat to one that I was in 18 months ago and wish I could do more of that. I hope that I can be helpful  to them and provide both reassurance but also not any false illusions about the road they face. When you have cancer or some other serious illness, you have little appetite for glossing over of the truth. We want facts, data, and some kind of vision for our future. Also, because of our experiences with illness, we understand the importance of research in a way that we never did before and that someone who has never experienced such an illness may have trouble understanding. This is why patient advocates are so important in terms of their role in research.

Spend more time focused on the present and looking forward to the future rather than thinking about the past. There is a famous saying that those who ignore history/the past are doomed to repeat it, but when it comes to cancer or some other serious illness, dwelling on the history of the condition does no good and moving on does not increase your risk of the cancer coming back. Even if you do not have some serious illness like cancer, I say focus on the present and look forward to the future without worrying about what might happen. Appreciate what you have each day and don’t fuss about what you don’t have or what you have lost.

Spend more time with those you care about and tell them how you feel. This may sound corny, but a friend or loved one probably never gets tired of hearing you tell them how much they mean to you. It does not hurt to tell a friend how much you appreciate them. Sometimes people wait too long to tell this kind of stuff to someone that matters to them and then it is too late. What are we waiting for?

So I hope you can see that as much as I hate cancer, at the same time it taught me a lot. Even if you do not have cancer or some other serious illness, hopefully some of these lessons will resonate with you too.


3 thoughts on “What cancer has taught me 584 days into my battle”

  1. Hello Paul,
    Thank you for posting the link to your blog in your LA Times comment today. I very much appreciate what you’ve written, and will take it to heart. Here at UCSF, we suffered a great loss this past July, when our colleague Kevin Mack was killed in an accident. Kevin was the kind of person whose death stuns a campus – actually, two – he worked at Berkeley as well. He was a perfect example of each point you underscored in this post, and some of his closest colleagues are deliberately carrying on traditions, large and small, to keep his spirit alive and try to compensate for what we lost.
    Thank you, and I hope that you continue to do very well, and have a long, healthy life.

    1. Thanks, Kathleen. I’m sorry about Kevin Mack’s accident. While we are all alive (however long each of us has left), we need to put aside things to don’t mean much but that can eat up a lot of time and focus on what we care about.

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