Cancer, Michael, and Heroes

Once in a while at an odd moment, thoughts of my cancer come flooding in. This time it was probably brought on by the fact that I go in for another PSA test and my PSA has been showing a slight rise.  Is this a new chapter? Now as far as cancer patients go, I have no complaints. While I have an incurable prostate cancer with a really high (9) Gleason score (highly aggressive), right now the treatment has put it in slow motion. So other than the side effects of androgen deprivation therapy (ADT) and antiantrogen therapy to wipe out testosterone in the body (fatigue, loss of libido, some weight gain, hot flashes that never end, sore breasts), I am mostly fine. No pain, no chemo, no radiation or their horrible side effects. So it is easy to ignore it, forget your now on a fast-moving time clock, and just cruise like most of us did through our younger days. Sure, weight lifting is more of a challenge, and golf wipes me out for two days, losing weight is a bitch, but I can still do all of them. My tolerance of heat is non-existent, but I am not suffering the ravages from the treatment that most cancer patients suffer so bravely and fight so valiantly (My sister-in-law comes to mind as a close example).

But still, I know that when things start to go down hill, things are going to get tough, unless some new treatment comes along to prolong my life until I die of something else. When those thoughts come flooding in as they do sometimes, I think of the movie Michael, the archangel played by John Travolta, who was on his last trip to earth to pull off one more miracle. But he knows this is it, this is his last hurrah, he is not coming back. Michael lived life large and enjoyed the sensory pleasures of this world taking in everything life had to offer. But in a great scene, Michael has that same sense that I am sure most terminal patients all have at one time or another, about how much they love life.*

The scene is with Michael who sees a bull in the field and decides to take it on. The noble fight. Imagine the battle scene between the two when they charge at each other, full of the passion of the moment and the fight, and then Michael and the bull are both knocked out by a high-speed head butt (there might be something here being said about fighting itself and its utility). When Michael gets back to his feet with help from William Hurt, he reveals to Hurt that this is his last big blast on Earth, his last hoorah. Michael looks to the skies, eyes closed, arms up, wind in his hair, and says, “I’m gonna miss everything so much.”

That is exactly how I feel. It just could not almost be over. There is so much around me that is to rejoice in. Yeah, young love is gone no matter what, I am an old man after all, but I have a wonderful enduring love that few will ever experience. And then there is that sunset, the amazing beauty of the sun, the feeling of a breeze blowing by you, just the pure joy of living, of being, all of that is still there and the thing that comes flooding in, that soon this is going to be over. Take it in, drink it up. Stay in the moment. And then… I’m gonna miss everything so much.

But the moment I am trying to stay in will pass and I will be in another moment, one that could be brutally hard, not just on me, but for everyone around me. And that is when I think of heroes. People who just carry on when things get really tough. That is the real definition of a hero. I think of the Medal of Honor winner who was honored the other day at the White House, who was a medic who just carried on with his job risking everything for his comrades. Who does not have a hero fantasy about themselves? You know, some fantasy about you saving the world. We have a whole genre of movies these days about heroes.

I think they all miss the point. Heroes don’t have to be super. Heroes are all around us. People, who in the face of adversity, carry on. And many of them do it with such grace. Whether it is the last throes of cancer, a disability that puts them at a disadvantage in this life, a tragic loss, or simply being poor and disadvantaged. If you want to find heroes, stand in a crowd and look around. The fact that you don’t know their stories makes what they are going through and how they manage it so much more heroic. And whether they win or lose the battle is not the point, but how they nobly fought the fight.

And that is my next great challenge. Who knows, I may luck out, but then again I may not. And the challenge is to do this thing with grace and dignity, to leave those you love so very much ready to carry on without you, remembering you for your grace and dignity. This last chapter is really more about them than me. Am I up to it? I really don’t have a choice. I have to be up to it. And if I need a role model to inspire me to get me through, it is not the combat soldier, the Navy Seal, the fireman, the police officer, the usual suspects, it is a little old lady who spent her last days in pain, but carried on. It is the bravery of those around you who will have to shoulder the pain of your loss when you are gone. It is all around us and yet most of us are oblivious to it. Well, I see it, maybe because I now am forced to profoundly understand it. I just hope I am up to it.

*This is not to say that at the end, some could and should choose death when the reality of life and their disease overcomes them. I cannot help thinking of the bravery of Brittany Maynard, her husband, and her family on her journey with cancer, and giving the rest of us some modicum of control over our lives in the end. That is one amazing role model.

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