A Life Without Regrets

Written in commemoration of my fifth cancer free anniversary that’s coming up in November 2009.  According to research, my probability of recurrence is now at about 1-2%.  During the five years since treatment the likelihood of a recurrence dropped exponentially.  So making it to three years is a huge accomplishment… and five… quite unbelievable.

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There’s so little time or experience for introspection when you’re young. This is especially so as you get out on your own during the college years when everything’s new.  Once you slide on into your 40’s, however, it’s almost forced upon you…  as if there’s some sort of bill to pay for time wasted and years of reckless abandon.

My serious introspection started at the age of 37 after the completion of seven punishing treatment cycles for a rare form of bone cancer.  I was so wiped out from the treatment that I couldn’t do anything but lay there and think.  What did I do to deserve this?  Did I give it to myself?  Could I have avoided all of this with different choices?  Five cancer-free years later I’ve come to realize that there were probably a lot of things I could have done differently.  And as such I may have been able to avoid some of the stressful conditions that likely helped (at the very least) to activate my cancer.  This is the wisdom, if anything, that I want to bestow – stuff that took years of mistakes to learn, but that could have easily been absorbed sooner if I’d had my head screwed on straight.

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First and foremost – contrary to what you may think – you do not have all the time in the world.  People are irreparably damaged or die unexpectedly all the time.  I personally had no idea that I was standing on the proverbial tracks until the train actually hit me.  As a design engineer I even calculated the odds of something like this happening and was absolutely certain that it was impossible if not incredibly unlikely for someone who was energetic, intelligent and athletic.  And yet it did anyway.  All of those morbidly obese people… and I end up being the one to get cancer, let alone a rare and deadly strain.

If you realize anything from what I’m saying here, hold onto this – when you’re about to die there’s only one thing that really matters, and it isn’t how important, rich or powerful you were.  It’s about how much you loved, and were loved, and the memories and legacy derived thereof.  Young, well-educated people are so caught up these days with career goals that they’ll move anywhere and do anything for advancement regardless of how detrimental it is to their personal wellbeing.  Oftentimes the cultivation of loving and lasting relationships takes a back seat.  This is the way it was for me.  I thought I had plenty of time to fumble around here, and in so doing let great relationships pass needlessly through my fingers as I trivialized my most basic needs for companionship.  Luckily my wife came along about a year before diagnosis.  Even more fortuitously was that I had the wherewithal to realize the intimate connection there and hold onto it… because the reality is that I wouldn’t have survived cancer treatment without her.  I didn’t have the strength of spirit to do it alone, and then come out hammered on the other side just to be alone once again.  She was the defining element that kept me going, because the idea of losing such a relationship after finally gaining it was so appalling that I was willing to put up with any amount of pain and suffering just to keep it. I’m not trying to diminish the importance of parents, siblings and friends here at all.  Just to say that the love of a companion (like a spouse), or even a child, is often more spiritually motivating when it comes to overcoming the impossible.  And spirit is what ultimately drives us.  In the end one must ask him/herself what the true measure of any accomplishment actually is, if not the lives touched and memories shared?

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My second gem of wisdom is actually integral to the first and just as important. In my idealistic days I honestly believed that people could change in significant ways.  Years later I’m often reminded that they can’t, don’t or won’t… at least not often or successfully for other people.  And especially not when they’re in a relationship with someone and had issues there from the start.  People take on roles in relationships that tend to solidify.  When this happens with someone incompatible it’s very difficult to evolve beyond those roles without breaking the relationship.  So rather than trying to change while they’re involved, it’s just easier to break-up and pursue personal growth after it’s all over… the “fresh-start” principal.

I had a girlfriend once for five years.  We lived together and everything, but I could never find it in my heart to ask her to marry me.  It’s not that I didn’t have the desire, but because I could sense her doubts.  Asking would’ve just brought those to the surface once again for a final blowout, which was something I couldn’t bear.  Eventually our relationship dissolved quietly because of it anyway.  Looking back I can clearly say that the whole thing was a colossal waste of time considering that she’d had these issues from the start.  She simply couldn’t get past the idea that I wasn’t taller, heavier, and manlier.  And no matter how hard she tried to ignore these seemingly innocuous irritants, her true longings were not to be altered.  What she really wanted was a big, burly lumberjack rather than an average-sized super-geek.  Sure the super-geek intellect would have been nice, but it wasn’t really essential to the desired package. This perspective spilled out onto everything that we did until it finally just finished us off.  As I said – a colossal waste of time… especially since I can count at least four far more compatible women that passed on by while I was trying to work it out with her.

Back then I thought it would take a couple years to determine compatibility.  Awhile later I started to realize that I could probably figure it within about six months.  Finally I discovered that five dates was more than enough.  All you need is the right pair of lenses.  The bottom line is – if you’ve got issues with someone, or they with you (no matter how seemingly ridiculous or trivial), they’ll reveal themselves within about five dates.  And if they do – let it go and move on.  It’s not worth wasting one, let alone five years, together when both of you could be out there pursuing more substantive relationships.

I know – it sounds unbelievable.  How could you possibly figure compatibility within five dates?  The key isn’t to focus on all those myriad qualities you want in a companion, but rather those that you don’t.  Lets say that her/his voice really rubs you the wrong way now?  It’s a petty irritant, but imagine what it’ll do to you in forty years.  I learned many enlightening things from cancer treatment, but perhaps the most educational was what happens when two people are stuck together 24-hours-a-day for a year.  If they’re right for each other, it’s a joy and … and if not, they’re in hell.  I just happened to marry a person that was truly a joy to be around 24-7.  So if you can’t find anything else to use as a metric here, think of it this way:

“Could I be sick as hell and with this person 24-7 for a year and still be happy?”

If you even pause to consider, then the answer is probably no.  My wife cared for me willingly and happily throughout that entire terrifying period.  And I did whatever I could in my extremely limited capacity to make things easier on her.  It turned out to be such an enriching experience, and simply reinforced the fact that we’d made the right decision to share our lives together.

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We were eating at a Mongolian barbecue once when I popped open a fortune cookie to reveal the following, engraved on one of those little cookie scrolls:

There is no wisdom greater than kindness.
Your lucky numbers are 6, 7, 9, 24, 27, and 29.”

I was apparently healthy at the time and thought nothing of it.  Even so, it ended up in my wallet with a host of others in my favored collection.  Years after treatment and recovery I finally got around to cleaning that billfold… and there it was again.  It’s now taken up residence in the wallet’s foldout display to torment me every time I pop it open.

I put it there for a very simple reason.  When I was healthy it was easy to be generous.  I had so much energy, time, and earning potential that I could afford just about anything.  Post-treatment, however, I’ve often felt as though I’ve got a lot less of all three.  And as such I’ve become more self-preserving and absorbed.  For someone in my condition who’s still largely disabled from the experience, much of this is out of necessity.  Even so, I could easily take things too far here if I’m not careful.  And that would be a terrible waste considering what people did to help keep me alive in the first place.

Right after I was diagnosed my sister went to the ends of the earth to find an institution that could handle such a rare and deadly disease… and even possibly cure it.  We then picked up and moved from Oregon to New York City to undergo treatment as a result of that research.  While this was happening, my medical insurance case manager secured an out-of-state exception to guarantee the extension of coverage there.  Even so the financial burden of the move and treatment protocol were to be overwhelming.  So we reached out for help here from friends and family, and lo and behold they came through.  All of those hectically busy, overworked people somehow managed to come together for quilt raffles, spaghetti feeds and the like just to help us out.  And they effectively saved us from financial ruin in the process.  During this same time my wife and family also took up the reins to care for me and keep me going.  All told, I am here today largely because of these massive infusions of kindness, generosity and love.

I’ve mulled on this little phrase for years while fading in and out of health.  I’ve gone through dark periods of frustration and anger about my condition, irrationally blaming just about everything for my limitations and failings here.  But I’ve always managed to find my way back to that place where everyone took a stand to help keep me alive.  Kindness has been the shining beacon in the darkest of places. Of all that I’ve stated here, if there is a single all-important, all-encompassing piece of wisdom to hold onto, I would have to say that it is that kindness in and of itself truly is the greatest wisdom.  And I am fortunate to have experienced its awesome, distributed power first-hand.

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I was like many of you once – a rising star on its way to greatness in my chosen profession and beyond.  I had a voracious appetite for knowledge, got two technical masters degrees, worked for a think-tank group for a while, and even won high ranks for some of my brighter ideas in state and national start-up competitions.  There was nothing I could not do until the moment I got blindsided by cancer.  And yet – If I have regrets now they’re not rooted in what I would have achieved professionally or financially, but in the fact that I didn’t fully realize the power of kindness and that of the united human spirit sooner.

All told, I often wonder how much different my life might have been if I’d met and married my wife 20-years ago.  Maybe I would have paced myself better, eaten better, and avoided unnecessarily stressful situations more effectively in order to preserve my family’s happiness and stability.  Certainly my wife’s wisdom would have been there to help guide us through an additional 15 years.  So maybe if I’d understood the true meaning, immediacy, and necessity of all of this sooner I could have even avoided cancer.  I realize that no one ever really knows what befalls his/her fate.  Even so, embracing these principals early has got to provide some positive, significant advantage – because inevitably – united spirits must be stronger than that of divided ones.


•    Recognize what’s truly important.
•    Go out and do something about it.
•    Recognize when you’ve actually got it.
•    Hold onto it above all other things.              … a life without regrets.

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