Boarding Pass

Image Credit: By cartoonist Kate Matthews.  Check out her work at www.facebook.com/cancercartoons Used with permission.

Image Credit: By cartoonist Kate Matthews. Check out her work at www.facebook.com/cancercartoons Used with permission.

Will it surprise anyone that death and dying are fairly often in my thoughts? Not in a morbid way, but as an event I will soon attend, a fact of life, the next step. I’ve written several posts about it. My favorites are Living in an Undefined Space, It’s not death, it’s the dyingand One Advantage of Dying? 

Perhaps that is why this cartoon spoke to me so loudly. Yes, people do say that to people with advanced cancer.

They are not mean-spirited people or cruel or pathologically self-involved people. Usually, they are people who love me, who don’t want me to be depressed or morbid, who are trying to cheer me up. It isn’t a horrid thing to say, but it is, I’m sorry to say, misguided and, however unknowingly, disrespectful of my situation and my feelings about it.

I don’t think anyone would seriously claim that the awareness of death experienced by a person of average health or a person who has a chronic, non-lethal disease is the same awareness as that of someone who has a disease that is fatal and cannot be cured. Metastatic breast cancer (MBC) is “managed” but there is no medical cure. It will kill us. It will kill me.

So what does that mean to me? How does it affect my life, my decisions? I’m not talking here about limited ability to perform activities of daily living (ADL) or about quality of life impaired by pain, anxiety, treatment side effects, and so on. I’m talking about the awareness of the relative imminence of my death: what does that do to my inner world? How does it affect my life choices day by day?

The biggest effect, I think, is that more than ever I am striving to be kind to people. Kindness is greatly under-rated. I don’t think I’m much different from other people in finding it much easier to say “I love you with the love of the Lord” (or whatever) than to do something kind for someone who may have hurt me. Yet acts of kindness speak much louder than words.

A friend of mine gave up most of her free day today to accompany me on my first walk outside the house in months. That was kindness. Other friends take time to email or text me encouraging or funny little messages. That is kindness. Just “being nice” to people is kindness. It’s easy when it’s someone I like. When it’s someone about whom I feel indifferent or even dislike – whoopsy! That’s a whole ‘nother thing!

A couple of weeks ago, my then household help broke something, a pyrex bowl with cover that I use quite a bit. He told me about it, and my first reaction was frustration and even anger. I took a breath and decided to be kind instead of angry. He didn’t do it on purpose and he knew he shouldn’t break things. It was an accident and he didn’t need me to make him feel bad about it.

“Oh well,” I said. “Be sure to clean up all the little bits. Pyrex is a bear when it breaks.” And that was that. I chose kindness over anger. Neither option would change the reality of the broken bowl, but a kind response is a concrete way to show that I value people, value that young man, over a glass bowl.

Valuing people and letting them know I value them is another area of concentration for me since my MBC diagnosis. Being kind is part of that. So is being polite, not blaming people for things that are not their fault and not going overboard when they are at fault. It’s a question of priorities. Which is more precious: my late pizza delivery, a broken bowl, a mistake in my grocery order… or the person I am talking to?

Of course I get angry and frustrated; I’m not pretending that I don’t. All I’m saying is that I am learning to prioritize the more important over the less.

In a novel I read once, an old woman said, “I wish I knew when I was going to die.” The people around were a little shocked and asked her why. “Because then,” she replied, “I should know what book to read next.”


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36 Responses

  1. lissyross says:

    I do agree that this diagnosis makes you think about your imminent death a lot more than the average healthy person out there. But I do disagree with one thing you mention…no one can ever be truly sure what they are going to die from. I could walk out the door and have a tree fall on me, or get hit by a bus. While I know that there is a good chance that my cancer is what will kill me, there are no guarantees about if or when that will happen. And I don’t think about it that way, there is no point. I just live in the moment as much as possible, no point in thinking about something I can’t avoid. When I get there, I’ll deal with it.

    I think the rest of the world would be a kinder, more loving place if everyone really could accept their own death, and our modern society has moved us farther and farther away from that. I wonder if cavemen appreciated their life a lot more than most people today because they were intimately aware of just how many things out there could take their life at any second. But that’s just not the way it works today, and its always easy to say everyone else should appreciate things more because I now do. Everyone comes to their understanding in their own time, and I cannot force it on them.

    All you can do is love them, forgive them, accept them for what they are. Remember, we were all there once as well. That is the point I am now in the process I like to call my enlightenment. My frustration with why people do what they do, say what they say, is fading day by day. I still feel the frustration, but as you mention, I take a deep breathe an show them understanding, kindness, love. Or at least I try to…I’m still working on it. Like I said, its a process. 🙂

    • Knot Telling says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, lissyross. I appreciate your opinions and input.

      Yes, everyone comes to their own understanding and even that can change with time and circumstances. For example, I am at a place in my illness where it is increasingly likely that the cancer will kill me and not something else–even though I live in a place where war and terrorism are unfortunately quite familiar. (You might want to read my post “My first bus bombing” http://tellingknots.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/my-first-bus-bombing-part-i/ )

      Now that the cancer is in my bones and causing more and more pain, I leave my home less and less, so the likelihood of being hit by a bus (or a bomb) pretty low.

      That is not a depressed or morbid point of view. It’s just reality for me at this time. I’m glad it’s not yours!

      Thanks again for reading and commenting!

  2. Susan says:

    The cartoon really expresses a lot, but your words are so powerful. You speak your truth and I just appreciate how you bring your kindness in to all of this. You are truly such a special person. xoxo – Susan

  3. Elizabeth J. says:

    I really thought this was a great post. I still have plans for the future, albeit very altered; I hope to see my grandson grow up a little more, there’s volunteer work, writing (something new for me – people have told me for years to write down the stories I made up for my students), so it is not like I am being morbid about this. But, I found I had to face and accept that cancer will probably cut my life short. Without a miracle or some new really effective treatment (without nasty permanent side effects), this is probably as good as it is going to get and there are no promises for how long. My oncologist says, you are not a statistic and he makes no promises or predictions. Just that for now, treatment seems to be working.
    A friend told me lately that I seem more peaceful than I used to be, even before cancer. Another friend said I have a deeper faith. I don’t know how true those are, but it now seems natural to think about life and priorities so differently, because I know that everything could change at any point. When people tell me to “just think positively,” I can now look at them and say that I am. I will either be cured of cancer here or in Heaven. (I don’t think that is what they meant.)
    I guess I do need to watch what I say to whom sometimes. I really liked the new anthem we were working on in choir, so after the rehearsal, I walked up to the choir director and said I liked it so much, that it would be nice to have at my funeral. It seemed like a very natural thing to say. Our poor young director. He either has a soft spot in his heart for this lady old enough to be his mother or he fears losing one of his pianists.

    • Knot Telling says:

      You and I have a lot in common, Elizabeth! I sometimes find myself blurting out things that seem very natural to me, but leave the other person nonplussed. I love the story about your poor young choir director. 🙂

      Thank you so much for reading and sharing your experience.

      • Elizabeth J. says:

        Knot Telling, I got great news. My PET scan last week was clear of any visible cancer. I am in remission. Although I am very happy about this, I realize this is remission, not a cure. My oncologist was very clear they have no way of knowing for sure that the cancer is truly totally gone, and once it is in the bones, it rarely is gone for good. I must stay on my pills and shots ( 😛 ) and be watched very closely still.
        I have found that most of my friends and family do not understand that remission is not the same as cure. I think some of it is not so much not understanding the difference between remission and a cure, as it is wishing for me to be cured.
        Oh, I’m not dwelling on it. I have been given a wonderful gift. The plane is delayed. But, I am aware that unlike a cure, remission means I am probably still holding that boarding pass.

  4. I laughed when I saw the cartoon. I hate hate hate when people say “I could be hit by a bus tomorrow, one never knows.” My oncologist told me to say “but my bus is hanging over my shoulder.”
    I do find it incredibly grating and as you said disrespectful, but it so very common.

    Today, I had a neighbor that didn’t know I had MBC tell me that breast cancer is curable. I replied it was not always curable. And she argued with me and said yes, if it’s caught early enough (myth #1). I told her I had MBC and she said didn’t you have mammograms (not only blaming but myth #2 of the omnipotent mammogram), I told her my mammogram was in fact negative. It was a diagnostic mammo and was negative and I had flown to the US to get it. So I returned to work in the developing world and it got worse. But I still wasn’t metastatic when it was finally found. I was cured first. And then it returned two years later. The biggest myth is of course that breast cancer is always curable.

    I hated the entire conversation and felt as I had somehow done something wrong. Probably because I refused to go on a plant based diet that everyone in my ‘hood seems to be proselytizing, that must be why I have MBC….

    • Knot Telling says:

      Oooo…. so frustrating! I have a hard time staying kind and patient with some people. It is not possible to teach someone who refuses to learn. Sigh.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Hope to see you around more!

  5. Beautiful post, KT. A less poetic way to put things is that life is simply too short to waste time and energy being angry with people about things that don’t really matter all that much. Or things that don’t matter as much as positive human connection.

    I for one, am very grateful for the kindnesses you have paid me, over and over again.

    • Knot Telling says:

      You are very sweet, Elizabeth.

      For me it’s simply a question of priorities, of what is more important. I once met an old rabbi who was famous for never having forgotten anyone he had ever met. I asked him how he managed it (I have a terrible time remembering names, let alone personal stories). What he told me was essentially that when someone comes to meet him that person is the most important thing in his life while he is talking to them. How can you forget someone who was once the most important thing in your life?

      • What a beautiful story and I am also impressed with that Rabbi’s neurological functioning! It sounds like he made the best of that strength to be very present and engaged with people.

        He sounds like our current archbishop. I have not met him but he remembers everybody’s names! My cousin, Tony, spent a great deal of time at St. James’ Cathedral in the last months of his life. (He died from brain cancer last November.) Archbishop Sartrain was at the cathedral one day and they chatted. One of his sisters was at the cathedral on a different day. He saw her and said, “You’re Tony’s sister.” He could tell based on their physical resemblance. Unbelievable.

  6. AnneMarie says:

    You made me think of this:


    George Saunders commencement address at Syracuse. Apparently, there is talk of a book… I think this post belongs attached to anything surrounding the beauty of YOUR kindness and the eloquence in the way you shared it with us.


  7. The Accidental Amazon says:

    I love this post, Knot. It’s so much what I believe and have for years. No matter what else we do in this life, being kind may be the most important & the most under-rated & the most potentially far-reaching thing we can do..

    I, too, think of death every day. Not in a morbid way. I don’t have the mets Sword of Damocles hanging over me, as do you. But maybe it started when I first bore witness to a friend’s dying, and then went on to work on a hospice team, and realized what a privilege it is to bear witness to someone’s last days and moments. It requires such bracing candor. And death certainly become a lot more personal a subject with my own cancer diagnosis, along with the reality of being single & by myself much of the time, when I was dealing with treatment and its ramifications. I slept with a light on for a year. But however much I have ranted about it all on my blog, in daily life, I appreciate kindness so much more than ever, and try to deliver it more often.

    Thank you for writing about this with such eloquence. We don’t have to pretend not to feel anger and disappointment with others or with what life hands us. But we do always have a choice about how we respond, don’t we? Your wisdom is a great gift to us all. xoxoxo, Kathi

    • Knot Telling says:

      Thank you so much, Kathi! I completely agree: the one choice we ALWAYS have is how we relate to our environment, our situation. Learning that was a shining moment for me and I still remember it. It was when I read Man’s Search for Meaning as an undergraduate.

      I don’t refrain from ranting either, and I don’t think we need to. The thing is to get it out, let it go, move on – right?

      Thanks so much!

  8. Maxine D says:

    Dear Knots – that is one encouraging post – I too have been trying to be more kind to those around me, and it is not always easy. You are right – we don’t truly know the path you are walking, and this post is a good reminder to be very sensitive with what we say to those who are facing chronic and terminal health issues.

  9. nancyspoint says:

    I love this post for a lot of reasons. One of them is that it reminds me of my grandmother. She had tons of dishes and of course, when visiting her every summer when I was growing up, I broke a piece or two on occasion. She never got upset with me and I will never forget how she told me that I was way more valuable and meant much more to her than any dish. Such a simple statement, and yet so profound. Thanks for reminding me of that memory today.

    It’s true, our words and our acts of kindness sometimes mean more than we can ever possibly know. Thanks so much for writing this. And I have a feeling you’re a very kind person.

  10. What can I say but “thank you.” I don’t know if I am more easily frustrated than usual now that I “have my boarding pass” but the last day or so I sure have been. I am glad for the reminder to be kind and, of course, that the more kindness I give the more I’ll get. ~ Kate

  11. dear KT,

    I just had a difficult surgery and have been thinking a lot about the good medicine of kindness exchanged in the hospital that was able to take my mind off some of the excruciating pain I endured. my dear nurse’s asst. never approached my bed without reaching down and taking hold of my hand. I knew she felt helpless seeing me in pain, and I always told her how much her gentle touch soothed me, and that I was so thankful for her kindness. later, when I got bad news that the surgery was not the “cure” (hysterectomy, uterine CA, more aggressive than thought), my day nurse, a very young woman, working on a short-staffed Saturday, came to sit at my bedside to just listen while I cried about missing my husband and how scared I felt about the results of the surgery, then hugged me and as I was falling asleep, put a cool cloth onto my aching forehead. it made me think of when I was a little girl, and my mom’s always such tender loving care. each time someone reached out to me with extraordinary kindness, I was engaged in being thankful, and returning their kindness by telling them how much they helped me – and it eased my pain, both the physical and emotional. angels walk among us – and we can be other’s angels’ as well. thank you for such an eloquent, honest, and heartfelt post, KT.

    love and light, XOXO

    Karen, TC

  12. Liv says:

    I love all your comments and stories about practising the art of kindness, mainly because it is a reminder of how simple it is to be kind, and how often we just don’t make that choice. Thanks for starting the thread, KT.

    Here’s a toast to kindness – seeing it in your eyes, hearing it on your lips, feeling it in a hug, an act of kindness is the single most powerful act of the namaste: the Divine in me – salutes – the Divine in you.

  13. Howard Steinberg says:

    I very much want to say something profound and helpful but those words don’t present themselves to me. So I can’t ofer them to you. The death experience was a distant possibility to me until…aha…enter the physician breathing his fetid breath ijn my face. Mr. Soandso, he says, you have three aneurisims buried deep in your body ready to burst. it’s not a bad way to go so get your affairs in order. I ran to Kubler Ross first, the to the bible. At first my faith felt shattered the, with the passage of time and th cement of the bible, it solidified. All I can tell you is that God has given me the fortitude to bear this cross. I am confident his arms are held open to you.

    These words are so pitifully weak but I offer them to you for whatever solace they carry.

  14. Tracy says:

    I have long believed that kindness is the only thing that matters, much as my Mother believed and taught me. It did not save her from an untimely death thanks to breast cancer. It may not save me either. But I will know I lived positively and behaved well. When all is said and done I’d rather be known by a few people for my kindness than by many people for misbegotten fortune or celebrity. You’ve shown how thoughts of things is meaningless while thought for people means so much.

  15. Audrey says:

    It still astounds me what people will say to people with cancer. I so agree with your focus on kindness, every small kindness has such an effect. It’s the uncertainty in the cancer experience that can cause me such stress and its some of that I heard in your post. I have been practicing a kindness meditation as part of my mindfulness practice. I have found it very calming and uplifting, perhaps my biggest challenge is being kind to myself. Wishing you lots of kindness……thinking of you.
    Audrey x

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