Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Q: Will I Live or Die? A: Yes.

I am going to die. You are going to die. Every single one of us is. No one is invincible. Death is the only real guarantee in life. It’s what we do with that reality that matters. It’s when tragedies like that in Aurora, Colorado happen that these existential questions come to light. It’s a time to contemplate and evaluate and appreciate the reality of life and death. As many were, I was deeply affected when I heard the news of this unthinkable act. What human cannot pause and think about what something like that means for their own lives and the world at large? It’s something far too important to turn our heads at.

For me, it brought up a lot of questions: Why them and not me? What’s it like to be gone in a shocking instant versus someone else that has a long-term terminal illness? Is one ever preferable over the other? What is worse for the victim? How about for those they leave behind?

Why am I, with a body that was full of lymphoma from nearly every lymph gland right through to my spleen, now not just surviving, but I believe thriving, while a six-year-old out for family night at the movies had her life cut short at the hands of an erratic and disturbed gunman. These questions are unanswerable.

Would you want to know when your day will come? What would you do with that knowledge? It’s a nagging that fellow longtime cancer patients and I carry with us daily – for better or worse. Most of us long to live. But this can't be said for everyone. I’ll never forget the time in the Emergency Room when after finding out I was a cancer patient, a man told me I “am lucky because most of us are trying to die.” I am not trying, and I’d venture to guess that those there for the midnight Batman screening were not either.

When the Dalai Lama was asked what surprised him the most he replied: "Man, because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then he dies having never really lived."

Surprise: we are all going to die. Like those in Colorado, some seemingly too soon and too tragically, but it does not change that reality. When I really look at it, am I more likely to die than anyone who drinks away their weekends and smokes a carton of cigarettes a day? Would I have been any more likely to fall victim than the positive and driven sports blogger who had already narrowly escaped another random shooting? No, I don’t believe that I am.

Okay, maybe my red flags are a little brighter than others, but we’re all waving them: whether it’s the massive amounts of stress we’re under, underlying disease, environmental factors, risky lifestyle choices. There are arteries clogged, communicable diseases acquired and fluke accidents happening every minute of every day. My risk factor just happens to be cancer, which is why I have to be so much more conscious of keeping the other risks low.  

To be able to wrap my head around that has allowed me to feel better integrated with the world around me. I am not unique in facing death. It can and will happen to any one of us at any time. I just know my enemy in advance unlike the nightmare that these 12 innocent victims had no opportunity to process amid shear chaos. By no means do I have contentment about it all the time; it is certainly a practice. Yes, I have a disease that will potentially be the thing that kills me. But something will kill all of us. That doesn’t mean to live in fear of it, but rather the exact opposite.

I wrestle a lot with the immediate question: Am I going to live or am I going to die from this? As my therapist once so perfectly responded: “The answer is ‘yes’”.

Because of the state of my disease I have to live in the present, unable to plan too far for the future. I have what can be seen as an opportunity that others don’t get to because they are too afraid to think about it or be conscious of death. I don’t have a choice in the matter really, but I can only hope that others will see stories like mine, and those of the beautiful lives lost in this massacre, and also be able to come to that realization that we get just one chance – in this lifetime anyway.

It doesn’t mean that we need to think about dying all the time, but I do believe that we should think about living all the time. Living has different meanings for everyone, but it’s about finding whatever that authentic path is and running with it.

Of course it doesn’t – and shouldn’t – take a life-threatening disease to come to acceptance of this. I think it comes with age as well as we all move past the blissful unawareness and invincibility of youth. Diagnosed at age 26 I haven’t been able to stay unaware as long as most, but I feel that that has been a gift to me. It has given me the opportunity to feel the full gratitude of what I have and to look at the brevity of it all in the face and decide what to do with it. That carries both an immense weight and freedom with it.

Craig told me that he remembers me saying a few months before I got sick that if I died on any given day I would die happy with the way I lived my life. I agree even more whole-heartedly today. I am happy with the adventures, the challenges, the love, the beauty I’ve experienced. I want more of it and I lust for it, but it’s not that I’m trying to avoid death now because that is inevitable. It’s that I’m trying to make the most of this life, this body, my relationships and the mark I am making here.

I want to be clear not to give my cancer credit. I do not believe that having cancer transformed me. I do believe that it enhanced what was already there – the good and the bad. I didn’t need cancer, but I believe that we have learned and continue to learn from each other. Maybe this comes as a surprise to people who look at the cards I’ve been dealt and thank the universe every day that my life is not theirs. I’m fully aware that the thought likely often crosses people’s minds: “At least I’m not Karin” when comparing my situation to their own circumstances. However, I consider myself extremely fortunate.

If those 12 people that were tragically shot had the choice to take a life of cancer treatment and living with lymphoma to get another 5, 10, or 20 years then maybe they’d take it. We’ll never know. Or maybe that’s too much to bear for those who would rather not have the time to think about the finality of death and impending doom. Death can be sudden and tragic. It is always sad, mournful, and painful for those left behind. But it shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us. We never know what each day will bring. Every morning I thank my body and the world for giving me another sunrise, and I make a promise to myself that I will continue to honor this gift that is life.

We can’t not do things or plan for things because we might die. In fact, we should do things because we will die. I’m not talking traversing the globe on a raft or solving the U.S. healthcare debate. I’m talking the every day things, like calling that friend and scheduling that coffee date or actually stopping into that animal shelter that you drive by every day and think about volunteering for.

This is something positive that can come out of such a horror that was that shooting – that it will get people to realize that it can all be gone in an instant, to shift priorities and focuses where necessary and to take the time to savor and be present, to get rid of that guilt and worry and shame and the squelching and the swallowing, and instead let ourselves shine brightly as we are meant to.

I am grateful that this reality of death is smack in my face and this recent tragedy again brings it right to the front of mind. I’ve had a chance to consider it and come to terms with what that means. I’ve learned over the past three years to be able to control that fear of death’s inevitability. When I was first diagnosed, and through much of the initial barrage of treatment, it was much about avoiding death, but now it’s much more about living life. There’s a big distinction there, and it’s taken a lot of work to create that mind shift.

At points I was so hell-bent on ridding my body of this disease and frustrated with the difficult process that I’d forgot to be enjoying my life. It doesn’t come easy, but it’s very vital to survivorship to not think of the time with cancer as something to “get over”, a “blip” in life, because it was and is my life.

Dangling in limbo between death and life, health and disease is not an easy place to be. I don’t have the capacity to live in the future, only in the present and this is a gift.

No one can avoid death, but we can maximize the strength of our bodies, our minds and our hearts and we have the ability to affect others and the Earth during our time here. This can happen in both a positive and a negative way.

Be ready every day. Don’t live with regret. Do what you want to do, what you love. Tell the people that you care about that you care about them and take the time to invest in those relationships. Above all invest in the relationship with your self and the things that matter to you. In the end, all of the other junk just dissipates. You can’t take it with you and it’s about the experiences that you create.

I hope that those that were lost in this shooting did live their lives that way. I like to think so as they were out enjoying the excitement of a midnight showing of a movie they had obviously been highly anticipating – out to have a good time. They had no idea that this would be their last night on Earth but it helps to imagine that before that terror they were out doing something they loved to do – childlike and carefree, eager with anticipation.

Who would ever fathom that this would be where those that survived would bear witness to such an unspeakable tragedy and those that died would never see their loved ones again? No one would. And that’s the beauty of the human race: our resilience. If these people all stayed in their homes, letting death stare over them for fear of entering crowds or being out in the world then they’d miss all that life has to offer and they would still die.

Maybe I’m going to outlive everyone I love and die alone well into my nineties in a little cottage by the sea wrinkly and smiling. Or, maybe I’ll develop a whopping infection in my mediport or my organs will suddenly give out from all the toxins they’ve been dealt and I will die tomorrow. Or, maybe I’ll get hit by a bus. No one knows when and how, but death will happen – to all of us – and it’s something we have the potential to be ready for.

Now is as good a time as any to take pause and reflect. We can’t live in that constant state of stress and fear as it will only exacerbate the process and destroy the chance we have at joy. We do have the means to choose how we journey along our way to death, no matter how long or how short our journey may be.


  1. After I was diagnosed, my doctor told my then-10-yr-old son that yes, I was going to die, but not from my cancer. He needed to hear it from her to believe it, and I'll always remember the gravity of her telling me--and making me repeat--"This is not a death sentence." like you, she's a big proponent of living life fully, regardless of diagnosis. I too believe that cancer didn't make me more likely to embrace life; the idea of cancer being a gift makes me want to barf. Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Karin - a lovely and inspiring post. Thank you for bringing this into clarity for me today. It was a thoughtful gift, and I am grateful.

  3. Karin,
    You have such a gift of writing and this journal entry is one of or I think may be the best of all you have written (that I have been exposed to on line). What you say is so very true and for you, at your young age, realize is such a valuable thing in your life. I hope many read this and truly think about what you say because it is all so very true. Live for the moment!
    Love from Donna and Don in Torrington

  4. Very nice Karin. I was in graduate school for a long, long time. Now I'm a pre-tenure professor. At almost every stage in my life I've had a lot of pressure on me to work really hard now and live later. It doesn't seem to me like that later will ever come so I figure it is time to live. That doesn't mean that I'm not working hard, but I'm recognizing that the work will still be there after I take my dogs on a hike, spend the weekend away with my husband, bake brioche, whatever.

  5. I love you, Karin, and I love this precious life. Thank you for being a part of it.

  6. Beautiful. Thank you.