Fear…

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