Release the Day - My Secret Desire to Waste Time, Investigate the Past, and Imagine the Future

06/25/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Living each day as if it were your last is not all it's cracked up to be. In fact, discounting the future and ignoring the past is how we've contaminated the earth with toxic chemicals in the first place.

Confine thyself to the present. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

In 1997, I published a book about the environmental links to cancer. It was really two books woven together: one part scientific analysis and one part memoir. As a biologist, I wanted to summarize for readers the major trends in the data. As a cancer patient, I wanted to reveal the lives behind some of those data points.

Such as my own. I was diagnosed with bladder cancer at the age of twenty.

Such as that of my adoptive mom, who was coping with metastatic breast cancer by age forty-six.

Such as that of my sister's fiance, who died of colon cancer at the age of twenty-one.

Such as those of the people who lived in the various neighborhoods of my industrialized hometown in central Illinois. Rates of lymphoma and ovarian cancer are impressively high there.

The book enjoyed reasonable success. It went into multiple printings, came out in paperback, was translated and released abroad. The most common comment I've received from my readers over the years is how much they appreciate the personal story. Sadly, however, my intended audience - the residents of my hometown - had little access to that story, in which their own lives are featured. At the time it was published, Pekin, Illinois, boasted not a single bookstore.

Happily, coinciding with the publication of a second edition earlier this month, Living Downstream was also released as a documentary film. And, proving that movies can go where books sometimes cannot, the film was screened last week in my home county. Hundreds of people came to watch it. One of them was my mom (who, on the brink of eighty, has now outlived three oncologists). One of them was my original hospital roommate from 1979.

The two of them - mom and roommate - reminisced with each other in the restroom after the show. And, according to my mother, the topic of their conversation was one particular detail about my life as a cancer patient that was represented neither in the movie nor in the book, but which both women claim to remember vividly. To wit: my first decision upon learning my diagnosis was to take up smoking.

It's true. I spent my first days as a cancer patient puffing and coughing and learning how to flick ashes into Styrofoam cups. (In 1979, you could probably have smoked in church if you had had the urge.) I figured I already had cancer, so...why not?

Thus, thirty-one years later, at age fifty, I found myself trying to explain to my mother how I had scored a pack of Marlboros while tethered to a catheter tube and an IV drip. Honestly, Mom, I don't remember. Please believe me.

My new identity as a disaffected smoker didn't last long. It turns out that I was too invested in my straight-A, academically ambitious, vegetarian life to develop a tobacco habit. (I did get my ears pierced. Oh, boy. See my post on March 31, 2010, "Awakening to Cancer's Environmental Roots," for a description of that deadly serious act of rebellion.)

"Live every day as if it were your last." So might have proclaimed the bumper sticker on the chariot of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Contemporary emperor Steve Jobs, the Apple Computer CEO, also claims to live by that directive. And the conventional wisdom is that a cancer diagnosis provides an opportunity to understand the truth of those words and thereby learn how to seize the day.

On this point, I am a contrarian. First of all, the ability to act on one's intentions and see them through over the long haul is deeply meaningful. Set a goal. Make a sacrifice. Control an impulse. Plan a parenthood. These are not bad things, and they all presume longevity. Living with the knowledge that one's intentions can all be dashed on the rocks if the next pathology report comes back abnormal - if the next scan shows signs of growth, if a new symptom arises - is crazy-making after a while. Of course, what all of us cancer patients hope for are long stretches of "awhiles." And I, for one, don't seek to pack them all with intensely lived moments. I also yearn to let time slip by, like water through fingers, like something I can squander, waste, fritter away. Because the presumption is there will be more of it.

I once served ten days in a county jail (on charges stemming from a free-speech issue, if you must know). It quickly became evident to me that violating expectations of what would happen next was an effective way for guards to maintain control over inmates. One day lunch was served at 10:30 a.m. The next day, 2:30 p.m. Out for exercise in the afternoon today. No exercise tomorrow. Cell inspections at random intervals; everybody leave off with Bible reading and line up. When sent back to our cells to clean up, we didn't know if we would remain locked in there all day or for the next 15 minutes. It was thus impossible to make a plan - write a letter, finish a poem - and trust that you had sufficient time to carry it out. And this is what incarceration and a cancer diagnosis have in common.

In a larger way, overemphasis on the value of the present moment contributes to the ongoing trashing of our planet. A seize-the-day mentality both blinds us to the future costs of an economic system that slides along on petrochemicals and prevents us from taking stock of past damages. As reported in this week's news alone, a new study from New Jersey finds elevated rates of kidney, lung, and lymph cancer in Pompton Lakes, where groundwater was contaminated long ago by solvents from a DuPont munitions factory; a new study from West Virginia finds elevated cancer deaths in communities located along streams polluted by past coal mining practices; and a study conducted in the supermarkets of Dallas, Texas, finds widespread contamination of common food items with persistent but long-banned pesticides.

Cancer survivors - and there are more than ten million of us in the United States - can be a powerful lobby for change. We can show the human cost of past polluting practices. We can reimagine - and make the case for - a future built on the principles of precaution, green chemistry, and green engineering. But only if we don't confine ourselves to the present moment. And so, my fellow cancer patients, let's release the day.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream, newly published in second edition by Merloyd Lawrence Books/Da Capo Press to coincide with the release of the documentary film adaptation. This essay is one in a weekly series by Sandra exploring how the environment is within us. /