“First I had cancer. Then everything became very simple”
Kang and I worked together for a couple of years and had last seen each other over 18 years back. No surprise to any one of you – I had kept up with him – if not anything else, thru that once in a year birthday call. Then, in 2008, he learnt that he had Stage 2 cancer. That same week, his mom was diagnosed with cancer too. I kept up with him thru Facebook updates on his health and stories of not giving up biking thru everything and used to send him encouraging words of support on fighting the good fight.
And then this September, after many many rounds of chemo and radio therapy and seven long years of perseverant “it ain’t over till it is over”, he was declared in remission. For the last few years, I have been wanting to spend some quality one on one time with Kang to get his perspective of life as he went thru clearly a life-altering phase.
Today was my day. I had set up a one on one dinner with him and I had a few simple questions for him. The evening was a great life lesson for me. I am going to write it up as a short interview style writeup here.
The opening was enough to tell me that I am going to learn a lot this evening.
Rajib: “I am sorry you had to go thru this tough phase in life.”
Kang: “No, no. I am glad I did. If I had the power to change anything in my past life, this is not something I am touching. I would go thru it again, if I had to.”
RR: “Really? You were not afraid that you were going to die?”
KL: “Rajib, we are all going to die. I just found out that day a possible way that I might die. If I did not wake up every day worried that I would die some day and I could not change it, why should the knowledge of one possible way I might die worry me any more?”
RR: “Good point. But death denotes some kind of finality, does it not?”
KL: “Well, it is all in how think about it. Are you the same Rajib when I met you 18 years back? Are you the same Rajib when you were ten years old? As a person, your values, your likings, your passion – in fact, every body cell of yours has changed. Does that mean you have died? Rather, does it not mean that the Rajib of forty years back is dead. All of you have is a small subset of disjointed memories. See, every morning, we wake up with a small part of us having died and replaced by a new part. Physical death is nothing but a culmination of that process. It is a passage of life. You cannot accept life if you cannot accept death as a natural part of it”.
RR: “Does that not then lead to a nihilistic view of life – how much does it matter if it is going to end in death anyways?”.
KL: “ Quite to the contrary, it makes you appreciate life a lot more. You get a very different perspective towards why you live…”
RR: “I have always thought that acceptance of mortality is the best setter of priority”.
KL: ”… exactly. In my case things like job promotion and such – as an example – have become far more meaningless. It is more important for me to spend time in the ways I want to spend time. When you go thru these kind of phases in life, you get some sense knocked into you. One of them is how fruitless your life’s day to day aspirations have become.”
RR: ”Because you let others drive your priorities?”
RR: “It is true that as human beings, we are more focused on what we don’t have than what we have.”
It is not really your life.
RR: “I get that. But here is a dilemma I have. I can see how you took a long view of the road and decided to take cancer in a proper perspective and obviously your mental strength helped you get over your physical challenges. But you did not know you will win the battle. More importantly, your family did not know that. For all the great talk of perspectives in life, the fact has to be that your wife was suddenly staring at the prospect of raising two kids who were yet to be five years old all by herself. The kids – and I do not know how much they understood this – was looking at the real possibility of losing dad for ever. How did they deal with it?”
KL: “And don’t forget my mom. She survived her own cancer. And then she was looking at possibly losing her son. It is a sense of helplessness only we as parents can truly understand.”
RR: “Yes. So all this self-realization – how does that help them?”
KL: “I am not sure I have a good answer for you. You can only control your own life. But I will tell you that my wife took this in her stride and dealt with the whole thing with a whole lot level of self assuredness than my mom did. But I did realize something else.”
KL: “This life of yours that you think is yours is not just yours. There are other people who have a say in it and need to have a say in it. You have to also decide your priorities thinking about them.”
RR: “You do understand the inherent conflict that can often create?”
KL: “Deeply so.”
Dealing with Pain:
RR: “So, talk to me about all the pain you had to endure. Chemotherapy and radio therapy is not fun for anybody”.
KL: “Radio therapy is much worse”
RR: “How so?”
KL: “In chemo, you are getting controlled poison. Your body violently reacts and you feel it and the body will try to sleep it thru because of the tiredness and lack of energy. In radio therapy, you will completely drained and wasted but you are really not tired. So, you cannot sleep. You just stay awake going thru that painful feeling.”
RR: “So, what lessons do you have for me as you dealt with that pain?”
KL: “First, that pain is a forward indicator. It merely indicates that there might be a breakdown coming. But usually it is a long time coming. And with evolution of human beings, we are feeling pain much earlier than we used to. Because we pay attention to the smallest pain – the faintest early indicator. And when you go thru cancer, you realize that the actual break point is way way far out. In fact, I biked thru all the time that I was ailing and my body still did not break down – meaning I did not die, did I?”
RR: “So, you think it is all in the mind.”
KL: “A big part. Sure.”
Small things in life.
RR: “I have to ask you something. For all this mental fortitude – and I commend you for that – the chores of having to go to hospital everyday, do this, do that … – all that was a change, right? Mentally, did you not feel that this is different? Others do not have to do this. Did that not make you feel down?”
KL: “Well, let me ask you. Do you think brushing your teeth every morning is a chore? You do not question that. Do you? You get up, brush teeth, take shower etc etc. You may have a car – so you drive to work. Somebody else does not – they walk up to the the bus station or train. Is that a chore for them? Do they feel down? It is all in accepting that this is a standard activity for you.”
RR: “The new normal, so to speak?”
KL: “The new normal”
RR: “But that means that is a change”
KL: “Well, your normal today is not what was normal forty years back. Do you complain about it today? You just have accepted that it is normal for you.”
Lest you think we talked just about cancer and the long view of the road, we also talked about China, India, parental responsibilities – especially how to deal with the fact that two kids can be very very different and also the twenty odd colleagues we had in our Canada office.
In fact, we left on the note that next time we get together, we should get all those colleagues together.
You know. Just to appreciate life.