If you haven't had it, the prospect terrifies you. If you have had it, it can unnerve and shatter you. Yet the dreaded disease may have an unexpected effect. It can ultimately change your life for the better. Indeed, in some ways, it was the best thing that's ever happened to me.
Michael Douglas recently told talk-show host David Letterman that he has "stage-four" cancer. Douglas sounded positive, upbeat, brave, optimistic, and candid. Usually, a "stage-four" diagnosis is a death sentence, because the cancer has metastasized (spread) to vital organs like the liver, lungs, or brain. The survival rate for stage-four cancer is usually zero to four percent--a "survival rate" misleadingly based on a five-year time line. But in advanced-stage cases of tongue, tonsil, or throat cancer, even stage-four cancer is quite curable.
What may seem ironic and counterintuitive is that for many of us, cancer can have a silver lining. At the risk of utter banality, it can intensify the joy, awe, and wonder of being alive.
Since we are all going to die, the important discovery--after the terror of a cancer diagnosis, especially a later-stage diagnosis, has subsided a bit--is to realize that facing the prospect of your own death makes life far more delicious than you ever could have imagined. What's even more important is that you are grateful to discover that being brave and keeping your dignity makes you feel serene and proud of an inner strength you never knew you possessed.
Nearly 12 years ago, I had asymptomatic colon cancer, discovered during a routine sigmoidoscopy. The tumor was removed almost immediately. I was told not to worry. It was most likely a stage-one tumor. At worst, a stage two. (Both have excellent survival rates.) A few days later, my surgeon appeared in my hospital room with a somber look. He began by telling me that this was the worst part of being a doctor--having to tell me that my cancer was a stage three. (Stage three meant that it had spread into the lymphatic system, which, with colon cancer, meant that my survival rate wasn't particularly good.)
I wore a continuous infusion chemo-pack for six weeks, followed by weekly chemotherapy and radiation. Then at the end of a year of hell (my white-cell blood count, as expected, was low) I almost died from the kind of pneumonia that killed Jim Henson. Next came years of "follow-ups"--CAT scans, PET scans, MRIs, and colonoscopies - after which I'd hold my breath as I awaited the results.
I knew a recurrence was essentially a death sentence, because it would have meant the cancer had spread to my liver, lungs, and/or brain. (On one occasion, there was a huge spike in a tumor-marker test, which my oncologist described as "worrisome," a word that still makes me cringe whenever I hear it to this day. The spike turned out to be a "sadistic" false positive.)
I discovered that my reaction to all of this turmoil was something I had least expected. I kept my cool. I didn't collapse onto the floor into a puddle. I kept playing tennis every day (against doctor's orders); in fact, I played the best tennis of my life while wearing my continuous-infusion chemo pack. I kept working on the Great American Novel; I continued to be a good husband, father, and friend. In other words, I worked hard at living a normal life. I didn't want my family and friends to be more upset than they already were, so I always smiled, never complained, and made absolutely sure that no one ever knew how shitty the chemo was making me feel. It was as exhausting as it was exhilarating. I was able to do something that I never would have thought possible, and this entire journey made me feel more alive. But my response was hardly unique. To my amazement, every single fellow cancer patient I met at the clinic where I endured my weekly intravenous chemo infusions was just as brave, friendly, and upbeat as I.
What I discovered is that cancer would never defeat me, even if, in the end, it ended my life.
Michael Douglas has so much to be proud of, especially the way he is handling this terrifying experience. And he has so much to be thankful for, most of all--and this is the important part--the love of his family, friends, and all of those who wish for him the very best.
Gary S. Chafetz is the author of The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff.