June 11, 2012
When a Friend is Diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer...
Roughly three months ago, I learned that a dear friend was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer. He's Chinese American, in his early fifties, fit, in great physical shape and doesn't smoke. If you track cancer stats, personal quantifiers are important. I keep asking myself, how can someone who doesn't smoke, has never smoked and has never been the victim of second-hand smoke be given such a potential death sentence?
I went to visit him for the first time this past week. He is local to the San Francisco Bay Area but I met him back East when I lived in Boston where he was teaching and our connection was pretty much immediate.
He was teaching a dance class, I was taking it and while the cultures I most gravitate to tend to be in Europe, Southern Africa and parts of South America, not necessarily in that order, his 'very Chinese' way of teaching made so much more sense to me that anyone else I had taken lessons from, which was well over a dozen at the time.
He was a very effective teacher though many people in the class would struggle at first to understand the less traditional analogies he'd throw into the mix. He would say things like: "imagine your partner is a grocery shopping cart that you're pushing up and down the aisles" OR, "think of a rock or a boulder you've had to hold 'up' when you were ten. How did you hold it up? With force and struggle or could you imagine another way?"
OR, if you've ever waited on tables, how did you hold a large tray to get the maximum connection so you knew the plates and glasses on top of it were secure?" OR, "imagine a chicken in your backyard who's fast and yet you need to build rapport with him, what would you do? Fast or slow and why?"
He just had that way. AND, he taught with such passion and humor. To dance with him was and is nothing less than pure joy. When you're done dancing with him, what's left in your immediate and long term memory bank is gratitude.
And now, at such a young age, he has lung cancer. He's not my partner, my son, or my father but like so many others he has touched along the way, he has brought an incredible amount of joy into my life. Everytime we get together, I learn something from him.
Like me, he's an intuitive, so he reads people quickly although sometimes people can tell he's reading them. I love knowing that someone is taking the time to figure my shit out on the fly -- it means they're taking the time and that you're interesting enough to figure out -- yet, it can make some people uncomfortable.
Ever notice that sometimes when you're most uncomfortable with a situation or person, you might be on the brink of learning something deeper about yourself or the world around you?
Don't read this post as a tribute to someone who is on his way out, but one that is throwing out a strong intention and statement that says, regardless of what labels are put on us, by ourselves or by others, we have the option to change them....even when we've been given a severe warning about our health and well being.
If there's anyone who can beat Stage 4, it's my friend. It doesn't mean that the odds are not against him, but what it does mean is that intention and attitude matters, from others around him and from himself, which he thankfully seems to have. He spoke of gratitude and the fact that he doesn't expect the universe to grant him a free ticket if he doesn't step up to the plate and do the work. In other words, he's doing everything that he can in his power to increase his odds of survival, of bouncing back, and becoming strong enough again to participate in the world again in a more present and vibrant way than ever before.
A double Scorpio, he thinks about the world in a different way. As a friend assessed fairly quickly, "you just look at people carefully, spend a lot of time and analyze them and then quietly think, "that's an interesting unusual way of being a human being." I had to laugh because there was so much truth to it. He laughed too and said, "can I use that?"
When we lived back east, I remember that he slept on my couch for nearly a week after showing up a house party and helping with the dishes. We were both going through relationship break-ups at the time and while we were both 15 pounds lighter because of it, he reminded me every day that the universe has a plan, not to fight it, but to embrace it and when we come out on the other side, we'll be ten times stronger and smarter than we were before.
Years later, he worked at Esalen, a holistic retreat center on the west coast, so I visited him there for a week. Everyone walked around naked and ate nothing but tofu and broccoli. Classes were freeform, hot tubs at night were overflowing with people and conversation and the stars spoke their peace in the wee hours of the morning while the moon shone bright.
Because he had a roommate and space was tight, we slept on a thin mat outside under the stars every night. While we gazed up at the stars, we shared our life intentions and our pains and fears, and whenever something didn't feel aligned even if it was slight, he threw it back to me letting me know where it was 'off.'
By aligned, I'm referring to a decision we make in our lives that isn't aligned with who we truly are. It's in this place we get into trouble, both in our personal and professional lives.
Working with clients, I often see a company start to go south when I sense a misalignment with the CEO or senior executive, and then, it's only a matter of time before a major pivot needs to happen, they run out of money or have a dramatic management change.
There in the dark night with the mystical light from the moon, I probably asked him, "what do you mean by that?" a hundred times, digging deeper into each explanation until the 'meaning' was pure, with all the onions peeled back. In that place, the truth was unveiled.
During our recent visit, he talked about the first thing that went through his mind when the doctors told him he had Stage 4 Lung Cancer. They said they were shocked at how composed he was and he laughed when he told us the story saying that they didn't see the flying glass hit the walls when they left the room. Of course that didn't happen; his positive outlook is incredible as he talked about living in a reality world versus a fantasy one and how important it is when you do hear bad news, since it forces you to do everything in your power with all the facts at hand, to turn things around. In other words, there's no point hiding behind the truth. Isn't that the case for everything we do in our lives?
He said, "I knew I needed to get my life together, figure out a plan even though I had no idea where to start." After our 3+ hour visit, we were standing by the car and he said, "a close friend emailed my brother and told him to find a good Hospice unit quickly to make him comfortable for the rest of his short life." He said he felt offended (the word he used) but then later realized it wasn't that she wanted him to die but it was the best way she knew how to deal with her own internal pain.
Most of us have a hard time with sickness and death. You hear a friend has stage 4 cancer and then what? The first thing is often denial. My immediate thought when I heard the news was #1) NO, this can't be true. This can't possibly be true. I don't want this to be true. How can it be true? Why is it true? It's not fair that its true. WTF that its true? Then, #2) who do I know in my circles with the most knowledge in this area who can increase his likelihood of survival? What do I need to do to mobilize things?
He didn't tell anyone the news for two days although he realized he needed to act quickly. He also knew that whatever he did in life moving forward, he couldn't harm a thing or do a wrongful thing. He used very granular examples: "I can't even harm a beetle, fly or spider." It was an odd analogy but I get it. How could you not be more present than you've ever been in your life when you're cherishing every moment of every day?
He spends his days cutting up recycled paper and getting creative with bottles that have been thrown away. Collages and origami. He also slaps his body to wake it up and move the chi, anything and everything that has become stagnant. Behind the knees, between the forearm and shoulder where the arm bends, the back of the feet, the bottom of feet and the top of feet, the top of the hand, then the legs and upper arms.
He never said woe is me during our visit. He laughed, was grateful and is taking an active approach to his illness. I left feeling sad knowing that he's in this place and going through so much pain, yet I also left feeling inspired, knowing that he feels that whatever happens, there's a reason for it, a reason beyond what he can see today. He has hope and talks about sleeping on my couch again and hanging out in a garden or by the ocean in a future time, where we explore the sun, the moon, the solar system and our intentions all at the same time.
And as I made my way home, tears coming down my face, I also smiled thinking about all the joy he continues to bring to the world. And, every day since seeing him, I send intentions out to the universe that those days will be longer than the number of days we think there "should be" with a Stage 4 label. Intention can't cure a disease, but it can help healing and bring a sense of peace as someone makes their way towards recovery.
So, when a friend gets a diagnosis and the news reaches your ears, go to a place of hope, not fear and despair, go to a place of love and gratitude not hate and bitterness, go to a place of intention and abundance, not deprivation and loss, for it is in those unspoken walls of intention and love that our friends stand the best possible chance.
Photo Credits: candle: Alternate Economy blog, Stars at night from Babblefrommyhead Blog, Beam of light from Global Intelligencer Blog,
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