Thursday, October 27, 2005

One Year

One year ago today, I received my cancer diagnosis.

I'm having a little trouble with the term "cancer survivor," though I'm not sure exactly why. I had cancer. I'm surviving.

Maybe it's because surviving seems to be setting my sights too low. I remember weeks, days, even hours and minutes when survival was about all the target I could muster, but now I want more.

I want to be fully engaged. I want to live with grace. I want to perform with abandon - both on stage and in the law. I want to give generously. I want to make a difference in the lives of the people around me - and not just as an "inspirational" cancer survivor.

Maybe it's because I still resent the cancer too deeply and too personally. I don't want to yield any part of my identity or personality to this trauma. I don't want to embrace what I've become, both good and bad, because of the cancer. I want to celebrate what persists in spite of it.

I'm pretty sure that's the wrong approach. I've got to live with the bitter effects - continuing digestive problems, physical and emotional scars, lost time - so I might as well make the most of the sweeter effects, whatever they may turn out to be.

I am hopeful.

There is only a very thin line of the chemo induced discoloration left at the very tops of my fingernails. My hair has grown back fully. Some of it is even dark. All of it is curly.

I'm exercising two or three times a week with a generous friend who keeps me at it, even when I'd rather not.

I'm working. I had close to a month of full and effective billing days, before a week of vasovagal events knocked me off kilter again. But the ramp-up is going much quicker this time.

Last weekend I played the Richmond Highland Games & Celtic Festival with my band. Last year, the RHG&CF was the last thing I did before my endoscopy and diagnosis. Tonight we'll play our annual Hallowe'en show at Rare Olde Times Pub. Last year, the Hallowe'en show was the first thing I missed because of my diagnosis.

In a couple of weeks, I'll turn 41, and the odds are pretty good that I will not be in a hospital. After that, we'll take the family trip to Ireland that we missed last year.

I'm spending less time planning my funeral, and more time planning my life. This week, I'll propose professional goals for the next year, and work with the Firm leadership to pick targets that are both aggressive and achievable. In a ridiculously far-sighted project, my son and I are working on building a wine cellar in our basement. Laying in wine means at least some part of me must believe I might have at least a decade or two ahead of me.

Reluctantly, I want to admit that there are some things that might be better now, than a year and a day ago. I've said many times that I have not noticed that the grass is greener, the sunsets brighter or the roses sweeter. I still haven't. I always appreciated my life and my world.

But I have to say my regard for people is even higher. I've always liked people. I'm an extrovert and I get recharged in the company of others. But as a lawyer, as the son of a law enforcer, I've always been aware of how people could be at their worst.

This year I got to see people at their best:
  • Dedicated medical professionals giving, not just their work hours, but themselves, fully to the care of people who cannot take care of themselves.
  • Devoted family and deeply loyal friends, sacrificing time, exerting effort, sharing pain & sadness, giving love, hope and joy.
  • Generous partners, colleagues and co-workers, carrying their own load along with mine so that my family and I could focus on healing and persevering.
  • The people of God, clergy and laiety, in my own church and many others in many faith traditions who, in the words of my Quaker friends, "lifted me up," to make a miracle possible for me and my family.
  • Perhaps most astonishing were the many neighbors, acquaintances, even strangers who reached out to us with prayers, encouragement, food!, and faith.

I've never heard of any economic, sociological, philosophical or theological model that adequately explains the human capacity for good.

The best we can do are stories. Here's one:

After the 9/11 bombings, we all heard news reports about how the outpouring of gifts and relief to the victims of those attacks had created an unanticipated strain on local charities and service agencies, who saw a precipitate drop in their own support. Encouraged by our friends, the band decided to create a charitable opportunity for the people who come to hear us play. One Thursday each December, we do an all-request show. Each request must be accompanied by a donation to Freedom House, a local agency that serves many of the most desperate and destitute members of our community. The heartfelt gifts of our audience have always been graciously accepted by Freedom House, and used to further their good works.

This fall, I received a message from Freedom House, saying that the board, staff and residents had been following my ordeal, and that they wanted the proceeds of the annual benefit show to go back to my family and me.

Of course, we gratefully declined the gift. But, I was stunned that these good people, whose mission and need is so broad and so deep, for so many of the truly needy, should even consider the welfare of one guy, who has, frankly, already had way more than his share.

So, I've decided to do more than survive. I'm going to live. I've got too much left to do.


Blogger UisceBaGirl said...

Amen to all that you said.

Please continue to share your journey with us. If this is just the beginning of your journey, I'm interested to see where it takes you and what you learn from it. Reading your 'lessons' teaches me about me, and probably leaves a trail of breadcrumbs for me when I face the hardships to come.

"The universe is not made up of atoms; it is made up of stories". Your story is replete with all that we are: joy, sorrow, pain, love, faith, doubt, family, and friends. Continue to share this gift with us, as you are inspired to do so.

2:36 PM  
Blogger vkenny said...

Hi Jimmy, When I learned of you diagnosis a year ago I knew the epic battle that was about to begin. Knowing what I know from our own battle, I think you should consider different terminology, I believe you should consider yourself a conquerer. Surviving does not seem strong enough to describe how you have battled(with the help of family, friends & most of all Judy)the courage, strength, determination & grace you show is inspirational. Ed & I are so happy that you have reached this milestone and we look forward to hearing about more progress on your current journey. Keep fighting the good fight!!

9:44 AM  
Blogger Jim Guy said...

I have modified the posting requirements for the blog, hopefully to abolish the spam comments. I hope it is no trouble to the legitimate posters.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Shelley said...

It strikes me that I was diagnosed with breast cancer on the one-year anniversary of your diagnosis. I found your blog in a comment on the NPR piece by Leroy Sievers. Keep looking forward, Jim. You already know what your mortality looks like. No need to hold its gaze any more than you have to.

My blog is Crazy Little Thing Called Breast Cancer. Lots of similarities!

12:19 AM  

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