Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. — Charles R. Swindoll
All negative thoughts must be neutralized with positive ones
After I learned about my cancer diagnosis, my mind oscillated between two extremes. Thoughts of near-certain death from cancer alternated with thoughts of complete cure and return to normal life. Flashbacks of earlier regretful times were coupled with moments of pride and accomplishment. Sad at the prospect of dying at the age of 30 instead of reaching the Canadian life expectancy of 80, but happy that I’m living in the 21st century instead of any other era in history. For every negative thought that crept in, I tried hard to neutralize it with a positive one.
Communicating my wishes
Before I knew about how extensive my cancer had spread and the corresponding prognosis, of all the things that I wanted to accomplish, the most pressing was ensuring that my financial and legal affairs were in order. Death, if it were to happen, would unlikely be sudden, but rather be preceded by a period of physical incapacity and dependency. Completing the power of attorney paperwork and my will, as mundane as it was, was surprisingly therapeutic. I have seen far too many cases of patients on their deathbed too sick to communicate their wishes, and leaving their families with a heavy burden to try to determine what their loved ones would have wanted in terms of medical interventions. By completing the paperwork, it removed any such uncertainty, which I hope will lessen the burden on my family who will be looking after my estate. If I were to die, I would want to die responsibly and not leave a paperwork mess behind. Dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s was a stress reliever. Perhaps because it gave me a sense of control over some aspect of my life, in the face of bleak circumstances that are beyond the scope of my control.
Opportunity to re-examine my life choices
As the days progressed and the possibility of a drastically shortened lifespan sank in, fear of dying was replaced with impatience with the unknown. I had come to terms with the concept that everyone dies, including the thousands of Canadians who die every year from car accidents, substance abuse, falls, homicides and other unintentional injuries. I took comfort in knowing that unlike these individuals, I at least was given the chance of re-examining my life, and making fundamental changes if I wanted to. However, it was hard to complete a list of “Things to do before I die” without knowing whether my remaining life was measured in months, years or decades. The uncertainty was killing me.
“My current survival rate of 50% is high enough to give me hope, but low enough to force me to take action, live every day to its fullest and seriously consider a bucket list.”
Finally getting to the numbers
I initially tried hard to avoid reading into survival statistics for gastric cancer (trying to not think about dying), and I manage to last an entire month before curiosity took the better of me. I eventually learned that someone with my stage of gastric cancer has a 50% chance of being alive in 5 year’s time. To be fair, cancer prognosis has never been an exact science. I kept telling myself that I will beat the odds, although I had hoped that my starting odds were a little higher, say 80%. Nevertheless, it is still better than the 10% survival rate that someone with the worst stage, the metastatic stage, would face. My current survival rate of 50% is high enough to give me hope, but low enough to force me to take action, live every day to its fullest and seriously consider a “bucket list.”
Stomach cancer and the prospect of dying may be the scariest thing that has ever happened to me. I’m hoping that it will also be the most positively transformative event of my life.