Fear: an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.

I have had many people ask me recently if I am afraid. My surgery is in 4 days, and no doubt about it, it is a big deal. Thoracic surgery, incisions in my chest, the removal of parts of my lung and some lymph nodes. And from what we have learned from others who have been down this path, it is a big recovery. On top of that there is the usual surgical risks. Anesthesia, human error, and infection, the practice of medicine. Hospitals unfortunately are not the healthiest of places. In many respects at this very moment I face greater risks from the surgery than I do from the cancer. Of course this is a false argument, the cancer is the real threat, and is getting stronger every day. The surgery is the path to health and healing, yet requires some pain and discomfort to get there.

Based on the dictionary definition of fear it seems like a logical question to ask. I certainly have had some “unpleasant emotions caused by the belief that something is dangerous and likely to cause pain”. Guaranteed to cause pain is more like it! Yet given all of that I don’t feel that fear is the right description for what I have been feeling over the last few weeks, and especially over the last few days. Instead I am feeling more uncertainty than fear.

Uncertain: not able to be relied on; not known or definite.

I still struggle to wrap my head around the reality that I have cancer. Perhaps because I don’t have any symptoms? Perhaps I am in denial? Maybe it is just a matter of time? 4 weeks is just the beginning of adjusting to a new reality, a reality that in a single instant has changed the trajectory of my life. The dawning of a new perspective on what it means to live, and what it means to palpably feel the vulnerability and fragility of life up close and personal. I am resigned to the surgery as a necessary step in the process. After all what choice do I have? Let the cancer grow, pretend it will go away? And I have been down the surgical path before. This will be the 6th time in my life that I have been put under anesthesia. I am a relative veteran compared to some. Brooke has never undergone surgery, and in fact never spent the night in a hospital! I have the benefit of context and like any endeavor you have done before it is always “easier” the next time through.

Yet the uncertainty remains. Has the cancer spread (they will do a flash biopsy of some lung lymph while I am on the operating table)? Will there be post operative complications? How much of my lung will they remove? Will I be able to regain my full aerobic functioning? And God forbid could something go catastrophically wrong? The answer is probably a resounding NO to all of the above. And yet the uncertainty gnaws at the edges of my resolve and confidence. I am reminded of my past and the mountaineering instructors who would encourage me that if I was not a bit nervous and afraid then I wasn’t paying attention. Climbing has inherent risks, and many rewards as well. We rely on the equipment, we become proficient in the technique, and we trust our partners. The subjectivity of the environment and the mountain can never be fully mitigated. Much the same with my surgery. We have done everything we can, have an amazing team in place at one of the top hospitals in the world, etc. The rest is in God’s hands.

So am I afraid? Yes I would have to acknowledge that I am. Not every minute, in fact far less than I had expected. Yet it is there on the margin, a thin ribbon of concern.  Certainly there is anxiety to be stepping into the void, yet because of the paths I have already walked in my life, I know I have the mental, physical, and spiritual strength to walk across this pit of fire. Instead there is a different type of fear, focused more on a perceived threat. And this “threat” nips subtly at my consciousness. A concern that I will come through this, heal, and quickly forget the lessons that have unfolded for me in the last 4 weeks. The benefits of cancer; the intimacy and connection with myself, family, and friends. That when I am cancer free and healed I will once more step into the fog of being unaware. Succumb to the fiction of a perceived future. The enticing lure of ambition and external achievement above all else. The trap of gauging self worth based on external validation. The fantasy that time, health, and “tomorrows plans” are limitless.

I want to remember everyday from here forward what I so acutely feel today – that everyday is truly a gift. A gift to be cherished, shared, and not wasted. And I want to live my life in gratitude to all of those whose love supports me, and to whom I can support with my love. I want to stay awake.

Love yourself and be awake –

Today, tomorrow, always.

First establish yourself in the way,

Then teach others,

And so defeat sorrow.

To straighten the crooked

You must first do a harder thing –

Straighten yourself.

You are your only master.

Who else?

Subdue yourself,

And discover your master.

– Dhammapada

Mind Games…

“Our life is shaped by our mind…”

– The Dhammapada

I spent yesterday in the mountains of Colorado, an environment I love and that has always nourished me. In fact, I have invested a lot of time in my life seeking out high alpine environments on foot, ropes, and skis and have had the good fortune to stand on many hundreds of summits.

One might think that it would get easier once you have done it more than a few times. Yet the reality is that it is always hard. Mountains demand respect. And everyone, no matter age, fitness, or experience has to work hard each and every time. I have found that the hardest part of climbing any mountain, real or metaphoric, is the mental discipline needed to push through the inevitable adversity that arises after the initial adrenaline wears off. In fact, on every ascent it is a certainty that it will get hard. There are always moments where I wonder why I am doing this?  Where the thought of quitting, no matter how fleeting, arises and tempts with an easy out and justified rationalization. The goal is to persevere and get past the mental blocks the mind presents.

Yesterday I took 3 boys, all 12 years old, up two 14,000 ft. mountains. I counseled them that their minds would give out long before their bodies. That when climbing mountains, like everything in life, we essentially have control over 2 elements – our attitude and our level of effort. Everything else is subjective and dependent on a host of variables outside of our control. Yet with the right attitude, and a consistent and focused effort there is little that the human spirit cannot overcome. I find it is so easy  to say that…much harder to put it into practice.

I have cancer. I feel like I need to keep saying it, because after almost three weeks I don’t think I really believe it. Talk about a mind game! And the weirdest and surrealist part of my journey is that physically I feel fine. And for the most part I feel fine mentally as well. And then, when I least expect it it creeps into my consciousness…I have cancer. And like climbing the proverbial mountain, I hit the wall and want to turn around,  I waver on the edge of letting the cancer get me down. It is so odd to be fit and active, and yet to have a life threatening illness growing in my lungs every day. Lung cancer, seriously? Of all the types of cancer for me to contract? Cycling, mountain biking, skiing, hiking peaks, running…I like to use my lungs. I like to be active. I feel like whining “it’s so unfair”. Right, isn’t that what we tell the kids “life isn’t always fair”. Seems a bit different when we are mediating sharing toys or a piece of candy, but I guess it is all relevant. Truth is life isn’t fair.

And then there is the temptation to complain, to be the victim. It seems that everywhere I look these days I see people smoking, usually in cars, and often with a 64oz soda in the cup holder. And yet I have cancer? What? Why me?

Or the fear that creeps in when my guard is down, the risks of surgery, the concern that the doctors have missed something, that it has spread, that there will be complications…that…insert worst case scenario of your choice. “But you will be different, you are lucky you caught it early, you are healthy, etc.” And what if that is not the case…Am I really lucky? I have cancer after all. Am I being to cavalier? Do I need a second and third opinion? Am I in denial that this will be a quick surgical solution and then on with life? Just a small blip in my life’s path?

And then there are moments of pure annoyance. Cancer sucks, I am feeling great and I don’t want major thoracic surgery. I don’t want them to take out parts of my lungs and lymph, I don’t want weeks of recovery, and I certainly don’t want 5+ days in a hospital. I really detest hospitals. I am all too familiar with them and I have loathed every night I have spent in a hospital bed.

While I don’t want to admit it, there is a part of me that wants to maintain the perception that I am great all the time. We are going to push through this and I am one of the lucky ones…AND that is not entirely true. There is also the darker side that hangs there nipping at me when I let my guard down. Wants to draw me towards the negative. In fact if I let it, I am sure my mind will run away with itself and take me in tow. Unbridled it shows no restraint in what it can conjure. And isn’t that really the case for most of us? If we don’t make a conscious choice to be positive, the mind can imagine anything we let it.  “All phenomena are projections of the mind”. We cultivate our reality. And we choose how we respond to the “the mountains” in our life that each of us must scale.

So I am making a conscious and focused choice to be a mental and spiritual warrior. I have re-dedicated myself to what had been my dormant meditation practice. To work with my mind to set the right intention, to shape a positive reality, to stand in the light without fear of what “could be, should be, or would be”. There is no doubt, the adrenaline has worn off, and I am facing a steep climb. It is going to get hard, and I am determined to summit this peak. And along the way I know I will falter, I already have, yet with the right attitude and continued effort I am going to push through. I’ve got this.

“The mind is the source of all experience, and by changing the direction of the mind, we can change the quality of everything we experience”

– Buddha