Almost four years ago I was diagnosed with Gleason 9 Prostate Cancer. The Gleason score tell doctors how aggressive the prostate cancer is, not how advanced it is. The Gleason score can range from 1 to 10, 10 being the most aggressive. So Gleason 9 meant that my cancer was quit aggressive and could spread quickly. This news came as a shock to me because I felt find and was starting a new life of retirement and had much to look forward to. The first thing I asked my doctor was what were my chances of survival? He said it was hard to say because it depended upon whether the cancer had spread but he thought my chances were fairly good based upon my PSA history. When pressed for a more specific answer he said most likely I had an 80% chance of survival. To me that meant that I had a 20% chance of dying. The word dying was always one of the most dreaded words in my vocabulary especially when applied to myself. This was the first time I had been told that my mortality was really in jeopardy. I could actually die some time soon. I asked my doctor how certain was he about the diagnosis. He said the biopsy was quite conclusive and that there were several biopsy samples that came out cancerous. I remember leaving the doctor’s office a little numb and light headed.
The topic of death has always been one of the most unpleasant, no scariest subjects for me to think about because I had always dreaded the thought of dying. Whenever it was brought up I would think that it applied to someone else. As I got older I saw more of my friends and acquaintances die but I always rationalized that my parents had lived healthy and long lives and so would I so I put off thinking about my own mortality. But now here I was face to face with that realization and it was personal and very frightening. I could maybe die in a year or so if the cancer was more advanced. The doctor suggested I start immediately on Brachytherapy. Of course I sought a second opinion before starting treatment. During the first week after the diagnosis I thought long and hard about dying. I sometimes had trouble sleeping with worry.
Eventually my rational brain started to kick in and I started to think maybe I had an 80% chance of living instead of only a 20% chance of dying. The odds actually favored my survival. That eased my mind considerably. Then I thought why am I spending so much energy worrying about dying, something I had little control over. I was already doing all I could medically to treat the disease so the rests was up to providence. I should focus my energy instead upon things within my control such as living, even if I had a 20% chance of not making it. Strangely during this struggle over death and living I started to lose the fear of death. I could think and even talk about it without feeling uncomfortable. Somehow confronting death instead of avoiding it had helped me overcome the fear death held over me that I then replaced with living which gave me something to look forward to. It took me about two weeks to come to this realization. I used to have fleeting thoughts of getting older and closer to dying which I quickly brushed out of mind. Now I can think of my approaching mortality without fear, quite liberating. Even my apprehensions about so much radiation treatment went away because I was no longer obsessed with the risk of later contracting cancer from radiation damage. I simply hoped for the best outcome and am looking forward to a future.
This clearly changed the way I looked at life. Instead of dreading death I was liberated to think more about living life to its fullest. It allowed me to tell this story. I’ll only live once so I had better make the most of it. The future now looked far more rosy and full of promise and adventures without the cloud of death hanging over me. Life shouldn’t be wasted on things I had no control over but should be invested in things that would bring me more meaning, pleasures, and rewards. After all isn’t this exactly what I dreamed retirement was all about? The cup is half full of exciting possibilities rather than half empty with uncertain fear.
Almost four years have transpired and I am still alive and cancer free. I have learned that you can never be sure of a complete cure. The longer you are cancer free the higher your chances are that it will not return. Most doctors will tell you that if you have not had a relapse after five or more years your chances are pretty good of dying from something else. But I am no longer concerned. I have made it my mission to live life to the fullest. I will not let the fear of death steal one moment from my enjoyment and appreciation of life. I have limited control over when life ends but limitless control over what I can do to enjoy living.
So the lessons I have learned about living are:
- Find a way to conquer your fear of death so it does not steal away from the joy of living. Confront your demons until you become convinced there is really nothing to fear.
- Concern yourself with things in life you can control; don’t waste time worrying about things you have little or no control over.
- Keep engaged and challenged with life, living, and joy. Life can always be made better if you try.
- Plan for the future as if it will never end but enjoy and appreciate each moment as if it will be your last.