On Finding Meaning in my Cancer Journey

Throughout my radiation treatments I took some time to do some writing.  Now that I am starting to get some energy back and feel myself again, I wanted to post what I had written.  I wrote the following post about a month ago at the half-way point of my radiation treatments:

On New Year’s Day, long before I knew where my medical journey would lead me, I took a relaxing walk around Walden Pond with my sister.  Along the trail that surrounds the pond sits a pile of stones next to the spot where Henry David Thoreau’s house once stood.  On a wooden signboard one of Thoreau’s most famous quotes is written:  “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  My sister and I took a few pictures of the picturesque lake as the sun began to set, and continued walking.

A few weeks later, I met with my Rabbi from when I was younger.  I can’t remember exactly, but it must have been at least 8 years since I had last seen him.  I grew up with this man, and it was an amazing flashback to my childhood listening to his sermons.  On the same day I had my brain surgery in 2004, my Rabbi had back surgery.  The nurses and doctors told him that he could not leave his bed, but he insisted to see me in the ICU.  It is one of the few moments in the ICU that I remember following my surgery.  As we sat together over coffee, we caught up on lost time, but also focused a lot on my present situation.  He encouraged me to take the time to find meaning in all of this…to find meaning in my diagnosis…my uncertain prognosis.

Over the past couple of months I have thought about my Rabbi’s question from time to time.  What meaning can I find from my cancer recurrence?  What meaning can be derived from myself and those around me having to live in a constant state of uncertainty?  I had already gone through this thought process before.  Over the many years following my original diagnosis and recovery, I had reflected back on my experience, finding a way to shape my hardships into a drive and ambition to make a lasting positive difference for others.  I had felt like I had been given a second chance at life, and I felt a responsibility to make the most out of it…to make the greatest impact possible.

This mindset helped me reconcile my struggles as well as push myself to accomplish things I would not have thought were possible back in 2004.  Looking back on my experience now, I am not sure if I would say I was given a second chance, or that the medical care I am receiving today is my third chance at life.  I do not think that my journey has been split up by these moments where I have been faced with these ultimatums in my life’s course…forks in the road to keep going or stop.  Rather, I see my struggle with cancer as a part of my life and who I am.  Cancer does not define me, but the experience…the journey…has shaped my character.

Already half-way through proton therapy, I have started to feel some sense of routine in my treatment.  I now have the luxury of time to begin thinking about my long-term plans.  What do I want to do during my year of chemo in Boston?  What do I want to do as a career? As these thoughts start spiraling, I get energized as if the sky is the limit.  But like a plane stalling in the sky, these highs have often resulted in frustration over the uncertainty in my long-term prognosis.  I have been blessed by the support of so many people, opportunities, and experiences.  All of which have helped me get to where I am today.  I continue to feel this urge…this responsibility…to take what has been given to me and direct that towards making a positive impact on others throughout my life.

As a 23 year old my mind is naturally thinking about graduate school and possible career tracks.  I think about what path will help me reach the impact I want to leave on this world.  As I think about these possibilities, I am quickly reminded by my medical situation…the uncertainty in my prognosis.  When this happens, I feel powerless…drowned by the weight of not knowing whether or not I can take all that has been offered to me, and transform it into something good for others.

One night, to get away from all of this stress, I turned on the film The Dead Poet’s Society (…I know, I couldn’t believe either that I hadn’t seen it until now).  On the front page of the Society’s book of poetry is Thoreau’s quote…the same one I saw on New Year’s Day.  Unexpectedly, I was overcome with emotion…tears falling down my face.  The mere observer would have thought I must really like the film…but it was more than that.  It made me think about Thoreau’s quote, particularly the words, “I wished to live deliberately.”  And that was it…the meaning I was trying to search for.

Since my original surgery, I have spent the past 11 years, and now the past few weeks, trying to create meaning from my journey with cancer.  True meaning though cannot be created at the end of the journey, but must be experienced along the way.  So what is the meaning I have been searching for in my experience with brain cancer?  To live deliberately…to live a life of vulnerability and authenticity.  People my age usually do not have to deal with the concept of their own mortality…that is often something encountered later in life.  What questions does facing your own mortality bring up?  For me, it has been how I want to live my life.  When the time comes however many years down the road when I meet my own mortality, I want to, as Thoreau said, know that I had lived.

Experiencing cancer, particularly the uncertainty it brings, has opened my eyes to how precious life is.  I still feel the same drive to turn my experience into something positive for others…but that is not the only meaning of my journey.  The meaning of my journey with brain cancer is in how I choose to live, and I choose to live deliberately, authentically…to be vulnerable.

One Reply to “On Finding Meaning in my Cancer Journey”

  1. Jeremy – You are a “true Henry David Thoreau Scholar”! I continue to pray for you daily! Sending you hugs,
    Thoreau Foundation


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