Two weeks from today, a surgeon will cut me open and remove a lump from my left breast. Few things will focus your attention on what matters in life as quickly as finding out that you have cancer cells growing in your body.
Just a few weeks ago, I noticed a lump under the skin on the left side of my chest. It seemed to just show up without warning one day. After seeing several doctors in the time since then, I found out Thursday that there were cancerous cells in that mass. It’s not the sort of thing that anyone expects, so there’s no way to be prepared for such news.
Breast cancer is about 100 times more common in women than in men. In men, it’s not as likely to spread to other parts of the body as the female version of the disease is. I probably have a greater risk of being killed in a car accident in the next five years than I do of having this thing kill me. Still, it’s one of those things that gets your attention and makes you think seriously about what matters to you.
Until last Tuesday, it still wasn’t striking me that it even could be cancer. I knew it was a theoretical possibility, but I just assumed it would be a benign cyst of some sort. I’ve known other people who’ve found such lumps and had to have surgery to have them removed, but they’ve always turned out to be benign. That’s what I assumed would be the case for me.
One of the lower-level doctors had come in to tell me that another doctor — the specialist — would be coming in to stick a needle into me to get some tissue for a biopsy. He left and I was alone in the room to wait. For some reason, I’ve never felt as alone as I felt in the minutes I waited. I can’t say it was surreal. Instead, it was hyper-real, as though I was more aware of everything than I’ve ever been.
All of a sudden — without even thinking about it consciously — I was very aware of which things in life truly mattered to me. And which things didn’t matter.
First and foremost on my mind was Her. You don’t need to know who she is. It wouldn’t matter to you. I knew beyond all question that what I most wanted was to have Her with me. Why? She couldn’t have changed what was about to happen. She couldn’t have affected the diagnosis. It wasn’t pragmatic. It wasn’t something I could really explain. I just knew that if I could have relived my life, I would have changed whatever I had to change — just so she could be there.
There are so many things that bother me every day, but those things haven’t bothered me in the same way since then. Maybe they’ll start bugging me again as I put more distance between myself and the initial realization of what’s going on. I don’t know. I hope I can hold onto this vivid distinction about what matters and what doesn’t, because it’s a much calmer, saner and pleasant way to live.
I didn’t tell anyone the news until Thursday. When I told Her, she asked me whether it made me think about mortality. I hadn’t consciously considered the question, but I immediately knew the answer. It’s definitely made me think about the limits of life — about the relative briefness of it — but not in the way we normally think of when we speak of mortality.
Most of the time when people talk about mortality, they’re talking about the end of life — about death. It hasn’t made me think about death. It’s made me think about life instead, but in the sense of wondering why it’s taken me this long to really start getting clear on some things that matter to me. Why didn’t I know five years ago? Or three years ago? Or even a year ago?
I suspect it’s simply because we have the unspoken assumption that life goes on and on and on, so we act as though we have forever to actually start getting serious about doing the things we want to do. Although I still believe I’m going to live a long and healthy life after this — with a big scar on the left side of my chest — I also look to the past and wonder why I’ve wasted so much time thus far.
Was it wasted time? Insofar as accomplishing much, yes, it was. Maybe I had to go through that “wasted time” to become mature enough and wise enough to learn what my priorities are. I’m not sure. I just know that it still makes me laugh to apply words such as “mature” and “wise” to myself.
I’m not looking forward to surgery or to the recovery period. I don’t mind admitting that I’m a wimp when it comes to the idea of being cut on. But what if this is the price I have to pay to clarify what matters most to me? What if the moments of clarity in that exam room last Tuesday and then the phone call from the doctor on Thursday were the beginnings of real life? The end of wasting too much time on things that don’t matter?
If that’s the case, it will be worth it. I have a short list of priorities now that I’m completely clear about. I have a new sense of the importance of love and life and the things I feel called to do. In those ways, maybe this can be the beginning of living my life as I’d really like to — rather than feeling as though I’m wasting too many days and weeks and even years.
I’ll let you know more when there’s news to tell.