I have been blessed to find The Healing Garden, a non-profit center for cancer patients in Central Massachusetts. Of course, in our COVID world, distance matters less than it used to, as all offerings are available virtually at this time, but various staff members at the Healing Garden have supported me in this crazy reality of living with cancer. And not just living with it, but continuing to teach full-time through it.
One of the counselors I work with at the Garden suggested that I might appreciate reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande, a physician working and writing from Boston, Massachusetts. He writes not only from his experience(s) as a physician, but also from being part of his father’s death and dying, subjects that have a new place in my life even while I prepare to start my second round of chemotherapy.
Gawande reflects on the shifts in Maslow’s pyramid when someone is living with a cancer diagnosis, writing
“When horizons are measured in decades, which might as well be infinity to human beings, you most desire all the stuff at the top of Maslow’s pyramid – achievement, creativity, and all other attributes of ‘self-actualization.’ But as your horizons contract – when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain – your focus shifts to the here and now, to every day pleasures and the people closest to you.” (Gawande, A., Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, 2014, pg. 97)
I didn’t have the words myself, but I find them in Gawande’s description of the shift in priorities. On the one hand, as my first eight-week cycle comes to an end, I find myself struggling to accept that I am going to put poison pills into my mouth again, on purpose, knowing now how much intellectual power and stamina I lose in the active phases of my treatment. I just got my brain back, a pleasure beyond description – it is near-impossible to describe how lonely it is to lose intellectual capacity, especially when you’ve always had access to it with ease.
“The answer, [Josiah Royce] believed, is that we all seek a cause beyond ourselves. This was, to him, an intrinsic human need.” (Gawande, A., Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, 2014, pg. 126)
One thing that keeps me afloat as I face down the remaining hours before I put the first pill into my mouth is my work, my students. I am so blessed to have a job that allows me to spend time with kids, to watch them grow and to sometimes be able to see how my choices as a teacher support their best growth. Of course, I’m even more blessed to be able to continue working through this so-called “treatment,” both in terms of remaining capable (thus far) as well as working in a virtual school. Most days of active treatment, my world has shrunk to pouring my energy into the eight hours of teaching, with just enough food and a walk before and after, to get me through until bed, when I prepare to start the process over again. Truly, my focus has shifted to enjoying the time with the students, the successes, the growth, the improvements.
“All we ask is to be allowed to remain the writers of our own story. That story is ever changing. Over the course of our lives, we may encounter unimaginable difficulties. Our concerns and desires may shift. But whatever happens, we want to retain the freedom to shape our lives in ways consistent with our character and loyalties.” (Gawande, A., Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, 2014, pp. 140-141)