Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner #30 The Three Questions

The chapter you’re about to read was actually the first one I wrote for this book, but there’s no way it could come first. The thing is, what I’m about to say is what I’d like to say over and above just about everything you’ve read so far.

Because it’s a conversation we may need to have – with ourselves, and with others – at some time.

When things are going great in our lives, we pretty much have the luxury of avoiding stuff we don’t want to talk or think about, much as we might hide a mess under the bed or food wrappers down the side of the couch. However, when something like cancer comes along, other things in our life often need to move around to make room. And when we start moving things around, our no-go zones become exposed to the wide, blue heavens and all God’s children too. Oh my God, we cringe, there’s all that stuff I just couldn’t face, didn’t get around to, don’t want to think about. Well, honey, guess what? You need to deal with it now.

For an awful lot of people, thinking about dying is stuffed way, way under the bed. The plan generally is to deal with it quickly at the last possible moment. I wonder – would you recognise that last possible moment if you saw it coming?

If you have cancer, you may have thought you saw it coming in the first five seconds after somebody said to you, “You have cancer.”

These kinds of conversations are very, very hard to have. Nobody teaches us how to do it. Generally, in our culture, we don’t even talk about death for goodness sake, even though we all die. Much of our dealing with dying is about pretending it isn’t happening and wishing it wouldn’t right up until it becomes inevitable. This isn’t very helpful. We probably need to start talking about it way before then.

People don’t like to talk about dying because death and dying is considered to be very, very bad, and to be avoided at all costs. Hello – of course, it is.  Death is bad, obviously sad, and can also be tragic and untimely and unfair. But our refusal to even speak about death as being a part of life perpetuates the belief that all death is intrinsically bad, as in wrong, and we mustn’t ever talk about it. I’ve learned that whilst dying is unavoidable, it is actually possible to have a relatively good death. Not everyone gets one, but I think it’s in all our best interests to see that those who could possibly have one do so.

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

One way we can improve the kinds of deaths people have is by stopping talking about them as if all death is a failure.

I especially become angry when it’s carelessly remarked “They lost their battle with cancer.” What if, in their mind, they never fought cancer? And if they didn’t fight cancer, but rather journeyed through cancer right to it’s end (remember, when we die of cancer, cancer dies too), would that really be so awful, so wrong?


A few years ago, I heard someone speak about what we might say to someone who was facing their own death. Their suggestion was so simple and so powerful, I’m passing it on as a suggestion for perhaps how you might want to think about it, or have a conversation with someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. I’m not in any way suggesting this will be easy. It couldn’t possibly be. But it will be at the very least clarifying. Perhaps even liberating.

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, there are three questions to consider:

Is it my time to die?

If it isn’t my time, am I  prepared to do what’s required to survive?

If this is my time, am I ready for that?

The answers to these questions may impact not just how you journey through cancer and treatment, but also the quality of your life, or your death, at the end of it.

You can see now why I didn’t put this chapter right at the beginning.


Of all the things I learned whilst I had cancer and since, learning to have this conversation has been the most useful piece of information I’ve gleaned yet. I’ve had this talk with myself, and I’ve suggested it to others. I believe the conclusions you come to could very well be the only information you’ll need, whatever happens with the cancer. But that doesn’t mean the conversation won’t be confronting or uncomfortable.

We all want a good life, and a long one, but we don’t always get one. Now, given my own health history, I don’t know if I’ll have a long life, but I sure as heck want a good one – and I also want a good death. I’ve known folks who didn’t have a good death, and I believe this is as just as tragic as a short life or a wasted one. It may be time to move the couch and have a bit of a check underneath. Maybe the couch has already been moved, and you’ve relegated yourself to an upstairs closet to avoid facing the subject. If you’ve been avoiding it, I gently, loving suggest you don’t avoid it, if at all possible.

Of the three questions I’ve suggested, you may only need to answer one, and knowing the answer to that one may make all the difference. This is not a formula, or a guarantee. It’s simply a way for you to open up conversations between yourself and the folks you love, to help you recognise and acknowledge your priorities, your values and your resources.

I don’t know what else to say, except it sucks we have to even think about this stuff whilst most people get to leave the couch where it is, and ignore the mess under the bed until much, much later. And I’m sorry about that. So much about having cancer is bad – not just inconvenient, unfair, and scary – but yep, plain old bad. I know you hate this. Me too. Me too, to all of it.

Tomorrows Soul Letter is the very last one. Love you. Hope you’ll be back. See you then. xxx


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Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner #27 What Really Matters

There’s a scene in the movie City Slickers, where Curly (acted by Jack Palance) asks Mitch (Billy Crystal) if he knows what the secret of life is. Answering his own question, Curly then holds up his pointer finger and says, “This one thing.” Mitch, puzzled, asks Curly “But what’s the one thing?” “That,” says Curly cryptically, “is what you have to find out.”

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

Late in 2003, I was told that I was dying of cancer. I’d always thought being told you had cancer would be the worst part, but it wasn’t like that for me. What worried me the most was the realisation I hadn’t worked out what it was, not by a long shot.

Now, almost ten years later, I’m still working on it. I like to believe I’m closer than I was. My current operating theory runs like this: in order to work out what’s really important – what it is –  it helps to know what isn’t really important.

Here are a few things I’ve worked out are not really important to me –

Having a dust free house.

Being right every time, and making sure everyone knows it.

Knowing for certain whether there is a God or not, and whose side He or She is on.

Creating art or writing other people think is good.

Singing songs that other people think are good.



Having perky l’il breasts.

Hair colour.

Skin colour.

Remembering who wronged me when, and why.

Forgetting to apologise to those you’ve wronged.

Scatter cushions.

Our parents mistakes.

Our children’s mistakes.

Our own mistakes.

Succeeding at making others happy by failing to ever start trying to do what you suspect you were created to do.

Thinking the price for others’ happiness is your own misery.

Thinking the price for your own happiness is others’ misery.


Worrying about looking young.

Worrying about growing old.

Worrying what others think of you.


Winning. (I know I already said that but it’s really not important. Unless there’s a gold medal at stake, and there usually isn’t.)

Adapting your efforts to the opinions of critics.

Ignoring the advice of true friends, and very wise people.

Getting even.

Getting what you want.

Getting what you think you have coming to you.

And there’s more.

Isn’t there, friend?

Could well be you’ll work out what it is, by clarifying what it is not. Time is short. We only have the rest of our lives to work it out, remember? 🙂


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Soul Letters For The Cancer Sojourner – #12 Not My Time

Today, a friend asked me:

“Name something you did today with all your heart.”

It was an easy question to answer.

Today I wrote some words about another day a few years ago – the day I decided I wanted to be alive for the rest of my life.

I was about halfway through my radiotherapy treatment, and the most ill I’ve ever been. Three months of chemotherapy, a stem cell harvest, blood transfusion, six weeks away from my family and a very nasty case of shingles on top of everything had pulled me down further than I’d been in my life, physically, emotionally and mentally. I honestly felt like dying was a reasonable, comfortable option, if going on living was going to be anything like that.

I slept – thank God, I slept – and dreamt of swimming. I swam laps and laps, up and down, all the time watching the bottom of the pool, wondering what it would be like to live down there. After swimming laps in my dream for what seemed like hours, I wanted to stop and just rest a while.

At the end of the last lap I don’t tumble turn, instead letting myself just sink into the deep end. I slowly drift to the bottom, unafraid, happy to be at rest. I stop breathing. I let my arms and legs just hang there. I close my eyes and start to drift off. Just what I need – a long, long sleep.

I am startled by a sound – a voice – a muffled scream. I feel a boiling in my throat. It’s my voice. I am screaming.

Image credit: iStockphoto

I shake myself awake from the dream. It’s not my time. This is not when I get to stop living. I must keep on being alive, and only I can do it. Keep swimming, keep going. This will not last forever. Keep breathing. Don’t sleep now.

I dredge my soul up heaving from the bottom of myself. I know it was close, as close as it gets, but here I am.


I love today, every today, because every today I am here to write about that other day when I had the choice whether to hold out for a day like this. I will never cease to be astonished at how bright and close every day is to me now. I don’t have to swim so hard anymore, but the practice has made me lean and strong. Strong enough to hold my own, and others’ too. Strong enough to bear to remember when death whispered in my ear and made me think that sleeping would be better than waking, sinking better than swimming, dying better than surviving.

Name one thing I did today with all my heart?

I lived.


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