Friday, December 14, 2007

December 14, 2007 – Cancer Terminal

I was reading the December 11th entry on T.L. Hines’ “Life With Lymphoma” blog, when something he wrote got me to thinking. In that entry, Tony ruminates on the word “terminal,” as applied to cancer. Turns out, somebody referred to him as “terminal,” because of a newspaper article that said his lymphoma (like mine) is considered incurable.

For the record, “terminal” and “incurable” mean very different things. “Terminal” means the end is near. “Incurable” means you’re probably going to have a disease for the rest of your life, which could be a very long time. Get the difference?

Tony points out that we hardly ever hear the word “terminal” used to describe any disease other than cancer. When was the last time you heard of terminal heart disease, or Parkinson’s, or even HIV-AIDS? If you tell people you’re going to give them a medical term , then fill in the blank – “terminal ______” – I’ll bet you dollars to donuts the answer will be “cancer.”

Tony observes: “‘Terminal’ has become synony- mous with ‘hopeless.’ And admit it, when- ever you hear the word ‘terminal,’ the word you immediately think of is always ‘cancer.’ The two are inextricably linked in our consciousness, and so in many ways, cancer is always terminal. Despite all the advances we’ve made in cancer treatment in the last few decades, I think that perception still exists among many folks: cancer is terminal.

I suppose, for me, that means I’ll always meet people who think I’m a Dead Man Walking. That means, when I tell these people I’m feeling great and doing well, and my treatment has a good chance of giving me a long remission or possibly even a cure, it will just be ‘Tony putting on a brave face,’ and these folks will know deep inside that Tony’s going to die of this cancer. And probably much sooner than he expects.”

I got to thinking more about that word, “terminal.” The truth is, life is terminal. None of us is going the cheat the Reaper.

Maybe we can transform cancer, in our minds, into a different kind of terminal. The word also refers to a train or bus station, a place that can be a jumping-off point for all sorts of wonderful adventures. They’re called terminals because that’s where the line ends. The trains pull in there, but they can go no further. The only way out is to back up. Smaller towns have stations, where the trains pause for a few minutes at a platform, then move on. Only the major cities have terminals.

I think back to the days when I was backpacking around Europe as a college student, railpass in hand. Every time I’d walk into one of those cavernous, Victorian-era rail terminals, I’d either be disembarking to explore a new city, or climbing aboard a train to head off somewhere else. A terminal wasn’t so much a place of endings, as a way-station on the journey to someplace else. As fascinating as the rail terminals were, with all their bustling crowds of international travelers, I never thought to linger there. Always I was eager to get on to the next thing.

I’ve found that, since getting diagnosed, I've traveled to all sorts of places I never imagined I'd go. Some of those places have been scary, some uncomfortable, others filled with wonderful, warm and compassionate people – but not a one of those places has been boring.

Maybe we ought to think not of terminal cancer, but rather of the cancer terminal. When we first get diagnosed, we often imagine it’s the end – and, truly, we’re barred from proceeding further in the direction we’d been headed. Suddenly, life becomes very different, as we move from doctor to doctor, test to test, treatment to treatment. After a while, though, we sense the train is ready to pull out. “All aboard!” cries the conductor, and we ascend the steps and find a seat in a compartment. Then, our train backs up for a while, before switching to an entirely different track.

Cancer’s often described as a life-changing experience. It’s been so for me, and for many others. Truly, cancer is a sort of terminal, a place where the tracks end and our journey ceases for a time. But then, the day does eventually come when we’re asked to board again, for a new destination.

For most of us cancer patients, that destination is a new and different phase of life, as cancer survivors. For a few of us, the destination is a far country, indeed – what we people of faith call life eternal. Either way, it’s not the end. It’s a beginning.

"People get ready,
there's a train a comin'
You don't need no baggage,
you just get on board
All you need is faith
to hear the diesels hummin'
Don't need no ticket,
you just thank the Lord."

- Curtis Mayfield, "People Get Ready," 1965


TL Hines said...

Carl, I like your take on the word "terminal" much better--this whole experience has, in fact been a journey. And not all of it bad. People who haven't been on the journey hear that and think it's crazy, but the Cancer Train has certainly taken me places I never would have been, and helped me meet people I never would have met. And my life is richer for it.

Betsy de Parry said...


Thanks for sharing such moving thoughts, and so eloquently. I wholeheartedly agree.

Some years ago, I heard George Carlin joke that it was always disconcerting to begin a trip in a place called "terminal." His delivery, of course, makes it funny. But like you, his line made me realize that our illness is not terminal at all, but the beginning of journey to new destinations in our lives. We all know that some of them are dark and scary, but this journey has connected me with people I would never have known and shown me the true beauty that lies within humanity. I wouldn't trade the lessons I've learned from this trip for anything, but I no longer think of "terminal" as it relates to airports. Instead, in computer terms, "terminal" is an access point - and indeed I have accessed more than I ever dreamed.


Carlos ("Carl") said...

Tony and Betsy,

I think it was Anthony de Mello who said the spiritual life is all a matter of awakening. We go through so much of our lives as though we were sleepwalking. An experience like cancer sets the alarm clock jangling and jouncing. Once we get through the sheer terror of it, we realize it's not such a bad thing.

But that's not something that's very easy to understand for someone who's not been through it, or even for someone who's just starting to go through it.

Lance Armstrong was probably exaggerating when he said cancer is the best thing that ever happened to him. But, he gets it.