“In a way though, the certainty of death was easier than this uncertain life. The path forward would seem obvious if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d have a plan (write the book). Give me 10 years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The pedestrian truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help. What was I supposed to do with that day?”
— Dr. Paul Kalanithi on living with stage IV lung cancer
Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had no true sense of how precarious our existence is or of how uncertain my future had probably always been. Then, on November 3, 2011, I learned that the course of my entire life could change in just a single day. I was at home recovering from hysterectomy surgery and awaiting the final results of my pathology report. At about 10:15 or 10:30 that morning the telephone rang and a quick glance at the call display confirmed that it was my gynecologist’s office. I was still in my pajamas and resting in my favorite livingroom chair. What happened next is something that I will always associate with how completely fragile life is.
At first as I held the receiver to my ear I tried to remain composed, but in just a few seconds my heart was racing and I could hardly breathe. I was consumed by a sense of dread so powerful that suddenly I was watching myself in slow motion. I listened as in a calm voice a nurse informed me that my gynecologist would like to see me immediately, if possible he wanted me to come to his office at 5 p.m. that evening. Prohibited from divulging any confidential information from my report, she ended our discussion by requesting that I bring a friend or family member with me. In just a matter of minutes my life had been thrown into turmoil and my cancer journey had begun.
My first time inside Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre was on a cold, dark November morning. Since it was my initial assessment, the team of oncologists had obviously chosen to schedule me early, before anyone else. I still remember how terrified I was, and yet how unexpectedly quiet and peaceful everywhere in the building seemed to me at that hour. For what felt like a long time, my mother and I were essentially the only ones present in the waiting room of the centre’s outpatient clinic. First, I was required to have a detailed consultation with a nurse about my medical history, naturally there was an emphasis on any family history of cancer. We confirmed that there is some history of postmenopausal breast cancer on my mom’s side. Next, I was examined by one of the Baker Centre’s top pelvic cancer surgeons, Dr. Prafull Ghatage.
Following my examination, we were assembled in one of the conference rooms with Dr. Ghatage and a team of other physicians. The seriousness of my situation began to register as I looked across the table at four of five white-coated medical professionals. Dr. Ghatage explained that he wanted to perform surgery as soon as possible. This news was too overwhelming, especially considering the fact that just weeks earlier I had undergone a total abdominal hysterectomy. “I just had a hysterectomy and now I’m dying of cancer,” I tearfully blurted out. “You’re not dying, I’ll inform you if you are dying,” a firm voice immediately responded. These rational words jolted me back to reality, and before I left I signed a consent form for a laparotomy—a highly specialized oncology procedure in which abdominal organs are removed, biopsied or repaired and a definitive diagnosis can be made.
The relentless waves of panic and the constant upheaval that I felt during that first harrowing month have gradually receded, at least enough to make my existence bearable. But even now, after years in remission, the uncomfortable, and sometimes terrifying, uncertainty of everyday life has remained. Some people are able to cope with the fear and uncertainty in this world by embracing one particular religious faith, however I’ve discovered that I am not one of them. At first, I thought that religious people would have a particular psychological advantage in dealing with cancer, but I’ve learned that this notion isn’t always true. Personally, I was raised in the Catholic faith but as an adult I have chosen not to attend church or practice the religion. Even without the many imposed traditions or the inherent sense of belonging, I have still been able to draw on spirituality to help me endure the life-shattering ordeal that I’ve been through. If you aren’t religious, it doesn’t mean that your cancer journey must be completely devoid of faith. I’ve nonetheless chosen to build a life on faith—faith in the power of good, faith in science, faith in healing, and faith in the possibility of miracles.