Tag Archives: Cancer

My Final Visit With My Friend Karen

I want to talk about my friend Karen, who is in the last stages of cancer.  I went to visit her this weekend and got to see how a woman who is suffering still has class.  While I was there, the family showed me a tape of Karen.  In the video, Karen was receiving an award for Employee of the Year at the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and she was being interviewed about the award.  Now, you’re probably thinking, “the DMV?”  Most of you get very aggravated with the DMV – the waiting in lines, the rules, not feeling like you’re being helped, etc.  But until Karen came down with cancer, she hadn’t missed a day of work in decades.

Just before receiving the award, Karen had a stroke and the interview was conducted while she was in the hospital.  Some very big “mucky-mucks” came to see her – the head of the state DMV and the lieutenant governor – because it was such a big award.  She was sitting in a wheelchair struggling to talk, and she was asked how she felt about getting the award.  She said (and I’m paraphrasing – she said it much better), “I feel very honored.  I and all of us here work very hard to serve the public.  We do the best we can to be considerate and compassionate, and to do a complete job.  That’s our job.  It’s our responsibility; it’s our obligation to serve.  I enjoy serving the public, and I enjoy helping people.  I’ve always been that way.” 

There she was, only 49 years old with terminal cancer and now a stroke, sitting there glowing with modesty and talking about our responsibility to serve well and with the right attitude.  If even 5 percent of the people in this country actually do that, I’d be amazed.  It just shows what kind of a person she is and what kind of a person we’re losing.

I told her later, sitting by the side of her bed in her house, holding her hand, and wishing I had magic, that I was really impressed with her attitude.  She’s never been interviewed before and didn’t know in advance what she’d be asked, but she just talked from her heart and said, “You know what?  It doesn’t matter what the economy is like.  When you have a job, it’s an honor to have that job, and you should do it to the best of your ability without resentment and without attitude.  You should be grateful you have a job and understand the value of what you do to serve other people when you have that job.”

Karen’s words got me thinking: What if people had the same attitude about their families?  What if they thought, “It’s a blessing to be fortunate enough to be a member of this nice family; I’m going to honor that great fortune, and I’m going to do the best I can to serve the people in this family.” 

Unfortunately, most people only think about themselves.  This is why I loved that line from John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  It’s a great concept.  There are so many terms we can substitute for “country” in that phrase, and it still rings true.  You could replace “country” with “job,” “spouse,” or “family.”  

So for the rest of my life, anything useful and wise I come up with on my program, I dedicate to Karen, one of the most decent, sweet, lovable people ever.  Everybody in her family will tell you no one disliked her.

Think about that.

Do you know anybody who’s liked by everybody?  Karen’s the only one I know.  She is so genuinely generous.  She’s not one of those manipulative people-pleasers who uses people to get what she wants.  Karen was created to give with a good attitude, even with terminal cancer and a stroke.  There’s just something special about her.  If you’re lucky enough to have a handful of friends anywhere near like that, it is a major gift from the heavens.  Anybody who’s around a person like that is changed forever.

When Bad Things Happen to Children

On my SiriusXM show recently, I spoke about the meaning of life, and then I got this email from Lisa:

I heard part of your program today and you read about the different thoughts about the meaning of life… I’ve been thinking about that, too.

As the mother of a child who is dying of cancer, like many of us, we are losing our faith in a big powerful “daddy in the sky” that hears our prayers. I’ve heard from Christians that “God doesn’t give you what you can’t handle” but I can’t handle this. “God gives you strength to get through it” – no, He doesn’t. I’m about to lose my mind… the pain is much too great to bear. I hear that this is God’s plan, or that God needs another angel. If he needed another angel, he would just take one, HE WOULDN’T TORTURE THEM FIRST! How could he PLAN to put a child through this kind of HELL? What good could ever come out of this?

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month. We wear gold ribbons, but only 3% of cancer research goes to childhood cancers. Does anybody care? Is the meaning of life only to do research on the “popular” cancers because they are the ones that will make money for the one who finds the cure? My son’s cancer is so rare that he gets the same chemotherapy he would have had in the 1980s… it doesn’t get researched.

Please tell me what the meaning of life is!

If you look at God as a “big powerful daddy in the sky that hears [your] prayers” and will give you what you want, and if you are a good person, you can’t help but be disappointed on a daily basis. That doesn’t seem to be the way it works. 

I know no other pain on the face of the earth that is greater than a parent having to see their child suffer and die.   I think parents would rather they suffer and die and trade themselves in for their kids.  So, this is the worst torture, but this is not a test of God.  That someone’s child or husband or wife or parent or friend gets ill and dies is not a test of whether or not there is a God.  There isn’t a test of whether or not there is a God — that’s why it’s called “faith.” To say that “I’m dubious about God” because my prayers aren’t being answered in the way that I want, is, in my opinion, never to have understood faith in the first place, but just to have played a social role in which you call yourself “religious.” 

There is no explanation for these things.  And, I agree with Lisa when she writes:  “If he needed another angel, he would just take one, HE WOULDN’T TORTURE THEM FIRST!….What good could ever come out of this?”  I like that answer of hers.  I think telling somebody this is God’s plan is a little obnoxious and I always thought it was.  It’s your assumption God is planning this.  You have no proof of that.  People go back to the story of Job and what he had to suffer and Abraham who almost wiped out his own kid until God said, “I see you really love me.  You don’t have to do this.” 

There are some important concepts and issues here.  When any of us says “I can’t handle this,” yet we make it through every day, we are handling it.  “Handling it” doesn’t mean it feels good or it’s easy; “handling it” usually means we are surviving it and doing the best we can.

I don’t understand all of the mass murders of the world — Stalin, Pol Pot, Germany, Japan. I don’t understand how that’s God’s will or God’s plan. It doesn’t make any sense to me, either.  And I don’t know how to put it together.  I don’t know how it’s God’s plan to have little children put in ovens and killed.  Or mommies and their children shot to death and put into a hole in the ground, naked.  I don’t understand how any of that is God’s plan.  So, I have no answer to that. 

This was not a theological thing where I was going to explain what life really means, other than there’s always been horror.  It’s like the horror films you see in the movies where there’s evil and someone in the church or somebody else finally squelches the evil and at the end you see the evil creeping up through the ground again. 

There is evil, there is disappointment, there is pain, there is everything.  So, ultimately, whether you really believe in God or not, we really need to hold on to each other.  There is something about touching the hand of another who corroborates your pain.  That’s why with parents in this situation, I always tell them to find other parents in this situation.  They will be the first ones to hug you and they won’t get tired of hearing from you like other relatives will.  It’s not they get tired, per se, it’s just they can’t do anything to help and it’s upsetting, so they don’t want to hear it anymore.  They are not being bad, they just don’t know how to fix it. They feel guilt and they feel uncomfortable and then they start feeling anger.  So, to go to people who have been there and done that is the way we hold on to each other.  Some people call that behavior the way God helps you go through things which are inexplicable. 

So, let’s not call bad things that happen “God’s plan,” because that hurts people.  God planned to hurt my kid?  You’re gonna tell me, there’s some higher power and I’m supposed to rise above that pain and say absolutely “I adore you?”  I think it’s a horrible thing to tell people.  I don’t think it’s good to tell kids God’s an all-powerful “daddy in the sky” who can do anything.  Well, then why isn’t he doing it for me?  I don’t like when people walk out of a bus that just been in a crash and they are alive and everyone else is dead and they say, “but for the grace of God.”  What the heck does that mean?  God intentionally wiped them out and kept you?

I think we want to feel special like we feel to a parent.  God is some kind of extension of parenthood.  We sometimes don’t realize how cruel we sound.  So, here’s my frame of reference for all of this.  There are evil things people do because they are evil.  There are horrible things that happen just because there are horrible things that happen.  The human body has weaknesses and that’s just the way it is.  There aren’t cures for everything because we are not good enough yet to produce them.  It’s hard to get money for things only a few people suffer from – Lisa is right about that.

The bottom line is we’ve got to hold on to each other.  That’s the immediate salvation: to hold on to each other’s love, support, and kind feeling.  It’s irrelevant if bad things are happening or not.  The way to make it through life, I believe, is to really be compassionate and to be open to compassion.  That’s what helps you get through the things that are inexplicable and horrible.

Live Life With Relish

Recently, I received some very bad news about a friend.  A year ago, she was diagnosed with lung cancer.  She never smoked and was very physically active, religious, positive personality and never even used a curse word.

I called her every day as she went through surgery and chemo.

It looked like all was good.  But it wasn’t, and it isn’t.

This cancer is aggressive, and spread even in the soup of strong chemotherapy.  Now they’ve told her they cannot operate.  She will have radiation every day for seven weeks and then be on chemo daily for the rest of her life.

Then they told her what her life would be like:  the esophagus is probably going to be severely impacted, she’ll experience nausea, acne, and on and on.

She told me she was going to fight and win this and just tolerate whatever comes.

I’m going to be calling her every day again.
 
I left the conversation feeling deeply sick to my stomach.  I had to go do a buoy race in my sailboat.  I got to the boat later than usual, and felt bad doing something so frivolous when my friend may be dying.

We started the race, and not one of the seven of us onboard noticed the course we were supposed to take.  That meant we had no idea (in the midst of a dozen possible combinations) where we were going.  But it was a beautiful, cool night with a gentle breeze with some puffs to keep the boat going.

I didn’t care we didn’t know where we were going.  Usually, I would be pretty annoyed we were competing with that kind of stupid handicap.

It was something my friend had said:  “I think everybody should have a ‘bucket list,’” meaning we should live each day fully, assuming that is the only day we have left.

I was out on the ocean among friends, in the cool of the early evening, sailing along in the rolling ocean.  What a blessing.  I asked the crew to vote each time we rounded a buoy as to what the next one probably was.  We guessed wrong, and went from first place to last place as we went further out to sea toward a buoy we weren’t supposed to go around.  I said to the crew “It doesn’t matter….we know we were first, and now we’re having a beautiful sail out here almost alone, while getting in more practice.  All is good.”

My tactician, who was nervous that he would get in trouble for forgetting to note the course, had to be calmed down.  I told him “What does it really matter?  What matters is that we’re all having a great time and actually doing a great job.”  And even though I’m a “Type A” personality, I meant it.

I don’t think I’ve had a more satisfying finish to a buoy race….ever.

Life is for the living and should be lived with relish.  When people are fighting for their lives, it points out how precious life is, so no one should waste any of it.

And so many people do waste it by holding grudges, not letting go of past hurts, holding themselves back from happiness because of anger or fears, letting disappointments and frustrations consume them, using drugs, being drunk, sitting in front of a TV or computer screen playing games alone, and more.

I still feel sick to my gut that someone so kind and sweet is facing this cancer horror.  I am in awe of her attitude, and grateful for the reminder.

Here she is, facing sickness and pain every day, yet she says she wakes up every day grateful for another day.

We should not all wait for cancer in order to do the same thing.