05/05/2014 12:29 pm ET Updated Jul 05, 2014

A Cancer Catechism

(Catechism: "A set of questions designed to determine knowledge.")

What has cancer taught you?


What has cancer reminded you of?

All the things that I've allowed to go unnoticed in a busy, distracted life.

Are you therefore grateful for these reminders?


Why not?

There are plenty of other ways to be reminded of what matters in life other than having your abdomen sliced open by a total stranger.

So your cancer was in your gut?

It's wasn't my cancer, thank you very much, but yes, that's where they found it. Today, my upper colon is two feet shorter than it used to be.

Sounds like, as cancer victims go, you've had it pretty easy.

Yes. There was no evidence of spread. No need for chemo. On hearing that news, I fell to me knees in gratitude.

So, you're at least grateful to cancer for...

I'm not grateful to cancer for anything. Cancer is not a teacher. It's not God's way of saying "straighten up and fly right." It's not a wake-up call. It's a disease.

Getting a little touchy here, aren't we?

What is it with this idea of cancer as a learning experience? As a path to self-discovery?

Hey. I'm asking the questions here.

OK. Then I'll answer my own questions. To repeat, cancer is a disease. An affliction. An invader. A killer. There's been a "war" against it for decades, but the good guys don't appear to be winning. Cancer accounts for untold suffering, uncounted trillions in research and hospitalization costs. It's ugly and relentless and resourceful. Its various treatments can bring as much pain and misery as the disease itself. It is nobody's friend. Nobody's teacher.

Are you listening?

Yeah. You're saying cancer's basically good for nothing, right?



Cancer -- or any other catastrophic disease or injury -- can be "good" for one thing: It can provide an occasion for something else to happen, to be realized in a life. It can be the occasion for others to respond to a sudden need. It can allow a total stranger to demonstrate life-saving skills. It can bring a phone call from a long-lost friend, an awkward pat on the back from a tongue-tied colleague. It can be the occasion for a still-warm cream cheese bagel to make its way to a starving patient in a doing time in a hospital room. And perhaps best of all, its removal -- not its presence, never its presence -- can send a guy to his knees in gratitude.

With cancer, occasion is all.

But you don't have to have been invaded by it to live your life as if every day were your last. Ram Dass didn't wait until he suffered a near-fatal stroke before urging people to "be here now." His is not an easy prescription, but it's a far better one than the kind an oncologist may one day give you.

Do I make myself clear?