Cancer has a way of teaching us poignant life lessons

I just finished reading George’s recent post on Evelyn Lauder, who recently passed away from ovarian cancer, and am still stirred by the passing of Patrick Swayze from pancreatic cancer and Elizabeth Edwards from metastatic breast cancer. There’s a reason I am a surgeon, and not a medical oncologist. Death has this bleak sadness about it, that eternal optimists like me have difficulties dealing with.

But still, as I think about these individuals and countless others who have faced cancer with courage and dignity, I think about the lessons they taught us.  One need only look to Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” or Steve Jobs’ address to Stanford University to see that cancer has a way of teaching us poignant life lessons that few of us realize until it’s too late.

I think about my patients who have, in the face of breast cancer, shown remarkable tenacity and done things even they never thought they could.  They find new meaning in life, and recognize how precious the time we have is.  They get out of bad relationships and into good ones, they stop dreaming of possibilities and start making them come true, they take risks, enjoy new adventures, and set purpose-driven goals that are truly remarkable.  And in the end, they inspire others in a ripple effect that goes beyond one’s wildest imagination.  One need only look to Susan G. Komen who, while dying of breast cancer in her early thirties, asked her sister for a simple promise that has now become a worldwide phenomenon dedicated to the eradication of the disease; or Ken Schwartz, who before dying of lung cancer laid the groundwork for the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare.

A friend of mine who is a physician and colleague, was diagnosed with sarcoma five years ago.  He tells me that, looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to him.  I’m not certain he felt that way at the time … but certainly, he tells me that he became stronger for it, with a clearer outlook on life and the practice of medicine than he had ever had in the past.

Perhaps more than anything else, my patients have taught me the value of life, of human connection, and that fundamental human kindness supersedes all money, status or power.  They have taught me that the human spirit has the ability to overcome even the worst adversity and to soar on the other side, that in every negative, there is a positive, and it behooves us to embrace that side.  They have taught me the value of living each day to its fullest, not putting off until tomorrow what you could do today.  After all, one day, there will not be a tomorrow.

In the meantime, they have taught me that each of us has the power to make a real difference to the world in which we live.  It’s a grim thought that one day each of us will take our last breath, and something on which I don’t often focus.  But every once in a while, things happen that make me remember the lessons my patients have taught me … and I am grateful.

Anees Chagpar is an oncologist who blogs at ASCO Connection, where this post originally appeared.

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