A Question of Time. A Time for Questions
Cancer causes questions. Hard ones. Kathy Linden shares her answers.
My mind just heard, ‘Time. Time. Time. Done!’ This is my last Christmas . . . I don’t want to know how long but look at what I just wrote. Face reality.
I wrote that in November 2019 following one of the many appointments I’ve had since being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I have been in treatment for ten years and have no significant options left. I am taking a pill to retard the tumor’s growth. Again, I am wondering if I will have another Christmas. My 60th birthday is May 3rd.
Cancer has become for me a question of time. But my past few years have also been a time for questions.
I read about a woman with cancer who had stated that while she would never want the disease, what she learned about herself from it was life-altering. I have found that true for myself. I created boundaries where I never had any and took a hard look at what was most important to me. I needed to ask and answer some very difficult questions.
I am not talking about questions of logistics, although they, too, are difficult because such issues need to be discussed with friends and loved ones. (If you haven’t started talking about what you want to have happen at the end of your life physically, financially, etc., it is time to start. I’ve found the more you talk, the easier the conversations become.)
Rather, these questions are the deep ones about life, ones that we’ll all be asking eventually. Some sooner than others. Here, then, are some of the questions, the ways I’ve gone about answering them and the conclusions I have made.
What Does It Mean to Live Well?
A palliative care doctor asked her patient - a man in his 90s - what it meant to live well with his remaining time. Since he was being released from the hospital, the patient didn’t hesitate: To attend Rotary meetings. (And for a period he was able to do just that.)
I love that ‘living well’ doesn’t have to mean by reaching a goal or hitting a milestone achievement. It can be something as simple as attending a meeting. It can mean following your own interests and cherishing the lovely moments of each day.
I go back often to a quote attributed to the Dalai Lama, which says, ‘An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful.’
Does my life have purpose?
As I have pondered this question, I have been influenced by the 2020 Disney movie, ‘Soul’ and the observations others have made about it. The movie is about a New York jazz pianist who has just nailed his big gig but ends up in a place somewhere between Earth and the Afterlife. There he has the chance to evaluate his life and perhaps inspire others to find purpose and passion in theirs.
Maria Shriver in her inspirational Sunday Paper digital publication wrote, ‘I loved the movie Soul for several reasons, but mostly because the overall message was that we aren’t here for one sole purpose or one sole thing. We don’t have to spend our entire lives looking forward to that one purpose, that one mission, or that one love. If we do, that makes us miss all the beautiful things that life has to offer us every day.’
Another take on it came from a friend who said, ‘The message is that we don't all have one big purpose in life. Our reason for being is appreciating what life gives us -- the good and the bad. Enjoying the small gifts like a sunny day and trying to learn from the hard stuff.’
These insights all helped me reaffirm purpose in my life. I did not want to be lying in bed in my final moments wishing I had made different choices.
Have I made a difference?
I have grappled with this question my whole life, not just during my time with cancer. But when the treatments began taking a toll on my body, making walking difficult, I spent much more time at home. Then Covid came along and with it an eleven-month lockdown. It seemed my life was about sitting in a chair or doing chores. I felt I wasn’t doing what I was capable of and just wasting my days.
That changed when I discussed this with my palliative therapist. She suggested that, instead of counting how much I was able to accomplish, I review my days from the perspective of having spent them in alignment with my core values. This conversation completely changed my perspective. I still remember that moment and the sense of joy I felt with that discovery.
Turns out each of my days were already filled with meaningful actions. I had discounted what I did because small seemed unworthy. Instead, I realized that much of what I was doing that was important to me. It did make a difference, and reflected my deepest beliefs.
For what am I grateful?
Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power. -- Harvard Health Publishing
I had a very difficult year in 2017, yet when I look back on it, I am grateful for it. It taught me how important actions from the heart are and how precious the gift of time is when it’s given unconditionally by someone else. A dear friend who freely gave me her time that year made a profound difference in my life.
Fear has been too good of a friend along this journey. Hope wouldn't even visit. But one way to get some sweet, sweet Hope is to have amazingly caring, supportive individuals in your life. Cancer is a very lonely place, and I am grateful for the many people who have been there for me.
I return often to two of my favorite quotes about gratitude: The first is from former President John F. Kennedy, who reminded us that, ‘We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives.’ And the second, ‘Gratitude is when memory is stored in the heart and not in the mind.’ This gem is from jazz musician Lionel Hampton
I am grateful that I am still alive and have a good quality of life.
Am I at peace?
I’ve struggled with this question, especially when alone and thinking about the uncertainty of the future. The knowledge that I won’t be around for that future is something I will never be able to wrap my brain around.
I have read about people, and even know one or two, who have achieved peace regarding their terminal diagnosis. I am not one of them. I fight too hard against the word terminal and do not focus enough on living in the present. Enjoying today’s gift. Finding some peace with this diagnosis. But, with such tools as I have, I've learned to cultivate hope.
Hope for me is about today. That I can take on and meet each day. That with each day I can make a difference. This I can manage. For me it is not, “I hope I will be cured of cancer.” That realistically will not happen. Or, I hope I win the lottery. OK, that realistically will not happen either. But I do know I can meet each day and make a difference, if for no one else then for my husband, Eric.
To have another day. A day that I am fully present, filled with gratitude and joy, no matter the situation. That is what hope means to me now.
A friend lost another close friend of hers to breast cancer within a year of diagnosis. She visited her friend as her time was coming to an end. She said they had sat outside in the sun and talked and shared, laughed and cried, and created a day never to be forgotten. I would like to emulate that.
How do I visualize death?
After ten years of treatment, my body can no longer tolerate chemotherapy. As I explored this question, my palliative therapist suggested I work on my ‘relationship’ - and it is a relationship, not a person or process - with death. I was like ‘WHAT?! HELLO?!’ at the thought. Would I be able to create in my mind what I want that experience to look like?
I cannot even begin to imagine saying good-bye to anyone. But I also hope that when the time comes, I am ready. That I am at peace. That a little of what I did on planet earth made a difference. That I have expressed my gratitude for every person - husband, friends, family, doctor, nurse, therapist - who has made this cancer journey easier and my life richer. That the end of my life has no regrets, just joy.
None of these are little questions. They’re not light. But answering them has made all the difference for me. I’ve learned that joy is in each moment and can be super small or big. When you ask yourself what brings you joy, is it in the doing, the being, or the caring? I’ve hit on my definition of hope, what might yours be? I am at peace knowing I live each day with purpose and make a difference in my own way. How about you?
Kathy Linden lives with her husband, Eric, outside Seattle, Washington. After retiring from a 33- year career at the Puget Sound Educational District she now pursues her hobbies of craft- and gift-making. She has authored a Facebook page about her journey with cancer. It was her insights from that page that inspired this article.
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