Personal: Victory through Surrender

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This post is not about libraries, librarianship, or information science. If you are here for that, please skip it.

fightToday is my last day of chemotherapy. Hopefully it is my last days fighting cancer, but I won’t know that until a PET Scan in 3 weeks (and really for five years or so). I feel compelled to share my experience, or at least what I learned from the process before it is colored by an outcome. I feel compelled to do so, because so many others have shared their experiences online and I have greatly benefitted from them.

Here is the hardest lesson I learned in chemotherapy. I am not battling cancer. The chemo is battling cancer. Battling is the wrong metaphor. I don’t feel like I am on the front lines. No, I’m the home front. Once the battle is endorsed, I am the one at home sacrificing to support the war effort. Taking the rations and reductions as part of my duty in the fight.

The key, I’m coming to see, in beating cancer through chemo is not fighting, but acceptance. You must accept the drugs, and you must accept that the drugs are going to progressively take from you as much, or so it seems, as the cancer. You must accept that your legs will ache and weaken; that your breathing will constrict; that your bowels will constipate; that you will lose energy. You must accept that for the drugs to do their work – the true battle – you must accept a lack of control.

At the beginning it felt like a fight. I felt like I was waging the war with cancer, and screamed, “this line and no further.” But the answer does not come from cancer, it comes from the poisons that kill cancer cells, and hair cells, and stomach cells, and white blood cells, and the components of your every body part. It comes as an unrelenting slow darkness that crosses your lines, and keeps coming, and will keep coming so long as you accept the toxins.

One day you realize – after your good weeks, become good days, become good hours – this is the price you must pay to live. It is not a moment of fight, it is a moment of acquiescence. You must give yourself over to the drugs, and your loved ones, and God. And it is hard. It is, in fact, the hardest thing you have ever done. Your whole life you have succeeded through action, through your wits, and your muscle, and your determination, and your own capabilities. But not now. Now you must depend on Bleomycin that eats away your lungs, and Vinblastine that robs you of your taste buds and hair. You must rely on your wife to drive the kids. To win, you must surrender.

Surrender to the process, to the treatment, to the care. NEVER to the cancer. NEVER to the thoughts of death. NEVER to anything other than life and the future.

Then there is a final thought, a crucial insight that must accompany the surrender. If you accept the treatment, and the limitations, and the proxy battle, you can then focus on the other things in your life. You can focus on your son’s graduation. You can focus on your wife’s affection, and the love of friends. You can focus on your work, and your mission, and all the things that will be waiting for you after the poisons and the drugs, and the pain, and the limitations.

So my battle against cancer via chemo is now done. The next steps? Radiation if they still find cancer in one or two lymph nodes. Bone marrow transplantation if the lymphoma is still broadly distributed. But, hopefully, monitoring for recurrence and recovery- thats plan A.

I’m sorry, but there is no rousing end. There is no soaring metaphor for you to take into work, just a set of humble and heartfelt thank yous. Thank you to my wife and family – patient advocates, caring shoulders, microbiology consulting, entertainment, and a foundation for my life. To my friends and colleagues: from cooking to teaching to visiting, you made my life easier. A big thank you to my students for your patience with classes via Skype, and your constant ability to both question and innovate. You gave me energy. And to all of you readers and librarians. Your thoughts, prayers, fighting pictures, and pointers made sure that while my body waned, my mind thrived.

Now we wait…

8 responses on “Personal: Victory through Surrender

  1. lizliddy

    I appreciate learning this new perspective, as I too always thought you fought the cancer. It’s been an honor and a very strong lesson to watch you / hear you / read you through this time. I so admire both how you are dealing with this challenge and how you simultaneously created & taught new courses, continued with existing ones, and shared your story so instructively. Always the teacher! Thanks.

  2. Mary Charters

    Yes, thank you for the lesson and insight. I pray the results are good and you have many years of good health ahead of you, Best wishes from a former iSchool graduate.

  3. alyscott2011

    David, thank you so much for all that you have shared with us during your course of treatment. Your strength and courage, even during the darkest hours, has been phenomenal, and you are an inspiration to all of us (especially to those of us who have been where you are now). Keep your eyes on the prize, my friend: life and the future. Wishing you many years of good health.

  4. Diane Hillmann

    Dave, I’m reminded of a friend who had breast cancer and in one of our many conversations told me that it was the best thing that ever happened to her. She clearly meant that it had dislodged her from her former life and its complacency, and taught her what was important. She died some years ago, of the cancer that changed her life in so many ways (aside from just shortening it), and I still think of her, and the path she took towards understanding. Your insights have taken me (and all of us), much further down that road. Thank you, and fervent wishes for the best outcome.

  5. Kate MacMillan

    Having gone through this with my husband, I know how very difficult this is. You are right this is not a war but rather the acceptance of the weapons/tools used to combat this disease. My only advice is to save your energy to embrace each day as a new gift… Even though this was ta terrifying experience, this was one of the best periods of our marriage.
    Many prayers and good thoughts

  6. Megan Oakleaf

    Hugs, Dave. So happy to know you and so grateful that you take the time to articulate these feelings and thoughts.

  7. Paul Hrycaj

    I still think you demonstrate that the humble warrior is the greatest warrior, and that victory is maintaining equanimity in the face of adversity. As always, hoping for and wishing you the best.

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