30 August 2009


Old man, look at my life

Hello turtleI've come to realize something in the last few days. My cancer treatment drags on, keeping me alive but not really getting me better. I continue to manage my diabetes and live with an artificial IV port in my chest. I take lots of pills and shots, get medical tests, and see doctors all the time. I can't safely travel very far.

More to the point, I hurt, and I'm tired. Many parts of my body simply don't work the way they're supposed to. Most of the time, I'm nothing close to genuinely well. I may never return to my great job. I've been like this in some form or another for more than two and a half years.

So here's what I realized. I'm a 40-year-old man whose body has become much older. I'm a youngish guy in an oldish container. There are plenty of people three decades beyond my age—including my own parents—who feel better than I do, and can do more. And the hard part (for all of us) is knowing there's a good chance they'll live longer than me too.

For the vast majority of human history, living to age 40 was an achievement in itself. Even a hundred years ago, Type 1 diabetes like I have was a death sentence too—I would have died in my early 20s, before I had a chance to marry my wonderful wife or have two great children. I'm glad I've had those chances.

If I were (for instance) 75 years old now, it would be easier to accept what cancer has done to me, and to acknowledge that living (for example) another five years would be a pretty good achievement. I'm trying to think more like that—not to be fatalistic, but to be pragmatic, to know that while I'll keep fighting, without radical new treatments or some very good luck, it's probably a losing battle. But that's not a failure.

I'm sitting on the back porch in the sun, drinking a coffee. In a few minutes I'll help my kids make some cake. It's a good life.

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I don't have cancer or any similar affliction, and am in generally better shape than my parents (though my 77-year old dad can do more sit-ups than me, at 43), so it's perhaps wholly inappropriate for me to comment, but perhaps you'll find some comfort(?) in knowing that you would likely have many of the same feelings even without your particular health concerns.

Time does different things to our body and mind.... our mind matures and grows in experience, while our body simply gets old. Your mind then has to relearn what the body can do... the tearing around in the park you envision with your kids is completely within the realm of "normal" for your mind, but giving it at try and your body yells "yo, dude, you're not 25 anymore."

It's difficult to accept. You're still a bit young for reading glasses, but some day in the next couple of years one of your kids will shove something in your face to look at, and even though you've never done it before, you will instinctively push it back a few inches so that you can focus on it. A moment later, once the conscious brain has had a chance to catch up with the subconscious action, you will be horrified to realize that you have just done what heretofore has been the sole domain of "old people". A couple of years later, you will find you need to push it back so far to focus that it's now too small to read, and you will learn all about how reading glasses are labeled and sold. You will curse that people under 40 design product labels with writing they can read but so small that you can not.

Also, you're at the age where in the course of your daily life you will meet and interact with other adults... have intelligent conversations as equals... and suddenly realize that you are old enough to be their father. Your brain will rebel at this... that guy is *cool* or that girl is *hot*... these thoughts are not appropriate if they could be your kid, but you're in your early 40s and they're in their early 20s... their folks could have gone to high school with you.

You would face all this as a matter of growing old. Some guys don't handle it well, going out and blowing money on a fast car (that actually makes them look even older) or using a quest for youth as an excuse to be unfaithful to their wife.

Others just take it in stride.... it's not at all welcome, but at the same time, you resign yourself to fate and change what you can. (In my case, after 10 years of being perpetually a touch overweight and out of breath, I'm getting more serious about good cardiovascular exercise.)

Taking it in stride or not, it's tough. Your condition only makes it much worse, of course, but as you note, we're all lucky to even have these problems (to be living in a time where 40 is not a death sentence in and of itself).

Although I miss your writing, I applaud your break away from blogging. I wish I had the guts to do that.
I guess the break's been over now for a few weeks, though. :)

Jeffrey, here's the difference for me: while I disdain the aches and pains, and my reduced capacity, I take each new grey hair and every wrinkle as a badge of honour. If I make it far enough to need reading glasses, I'll be glad to have done it.
Derek, is there any chance you can go back to your job, at least part time? I think you have too much time to focus on your cancer, and although I think you do a great job of dealing with it, if you miss your great job can't you make some deal to go back to it?

Most of us are too busy to contemplate mortality all the time. Obviously I don't have cancer like you do, but people my age are dropping dead around me all the time, and the way I avoid becoming bummed about my failing body and lack of the energy I used to have and all the bla bla that comes with life is to stay very, very busy.

Isn't there any way you can do (some) of that? I know you have side effects, but...
just trying to think outside the box here for you.
Francine, I do keep myself busy with many things, including podcasts, photography, and especially my kids, but returning to work is complicated for various reasons to do with my health, the company, our industry, the economy, and my extended health insurance. We'll see.
I think Mr Friedl should read your blog entry again. He completely missed your point.
As I noted over on Facebook, I think my post reads a bit more melancholy than I felt writing it. Read my last paragraph again: I'm not saying it's merely been a good life, I'm saying it still is one. Harder, yes, and sometimes unpleasant, but still with joy.
Yep, you've got it right, Derek. Focus on the joy.
My first thought, after reading this, was sobering, jolting me into your reality and reminding me that I'm just merely getting old. I'm really glad yours is a good life despite all the extra aches and fears you have to carry around, hang in there.
Via Bill, here's a fun quote from Montaigne at The Weading Ledge that pins my point:

Should a man fall from a sprightly and vigorous youth suddenly into the aches and impotencies of age, I do not think any human would be able to endure such a change. But nature, leading us by the hand at an easy and, as it were, insensible pace, little by little, step by step, conducts us gently to that miserable condition, and by that means makes it familiar to us. Thus we do not perceive—nor are aware of the occasion—when our youth dies in us, though it be really a harder death than the final dissolution of a languishing body, which is only the death of old age...
I wish I could be 1/10th of the writer, father, husband and man that you are, Derek. You are an inspiration every single day.
You truly are an inspiration. Your insights into life/love/parenthood/aging are thought provoking. My father began the journey of living with cancer in August 2007 at the age of 71, he has been through many of the same surgeries/procedures/chemo treatments that you have. (I found your blog right after he was diagnosed) His courage, sense of humor, perserverance and faith have given him strength to make these last 2 years the best he could ask for. Your blog has given me hope, strength and the knowledge that "we can do it". I thank you for that. Currently we are ending our journey, his 73 year old body can no longer take the effects of the disease or the medications. But his sense of humor, his attitude have stayed strong, we are truly blessed to have been able to be a part of his "journey".

Sorry for the rant, I just wanted you to know how appreciative I am for the insights you share and to let you know (as a daughter of an amazing man) you are giving your daughters and wife some very special times. Every moment is a precious moment.

Thanks. mdibbell@hotmail.com
Thank you, Derek. As many others have already attested, and you yourself explain (patiently, gently, as often as needed) we are all on a journey and the end is known. I blogged all through my cancer mess, and am relatively "normal" in all outward appearance. But I am a changed man. I stopped blogging to get away from myself a bit, but I honor your perseverance. Every day should be a good day, and we have the power to shape our attitudes. You are a model for me.
Aw Derek man, I'm blinking at my screen, desperately telling myself it must be something in the air. Contemplating going back to teaching tomorrow and meeting up with all those eager young faces... it must have made me a little sappy.

And of course your ability to turn everything into a wonderful story.
The most important thing you can do is take comfort in the things you enjoy; family, community, hobbies.
I am a lot like you were...

Just read your blog after having six hours of chemo. 59, been round the world, artisan for 20 yrs and director of a self made drop-out program for 16-24 yrs old. Pancreatic C.. since feb 2008, actually ampullary-vater C, Whipple surgery, more chemo and now small mets to the liver. More surgery this Fall by a smart doc and because these meds worked (Oxyplatin and Xeloda. The first doc coldly told me to go home and enjoy what I had left. Angry, something big… I decided to adjust, survive and not feel sorry for myself. Bye to the job I loved, even if that job almost killed me and hello everyday living, just like while travelling.
My eldest, 35, is a jazz musician here in Montreal. Music!!!! I share this love with him… it has always been my best therapy. I'm not in denial, just in refusal. The will to fight has pushed the fears away, half the cure is in the head. I listened to your music... a lucky man you are with all these talents. Now let the music work for you. Stef
I just want to say thank you - for sharing your world and being so inspiring. I read your words, and from them, find a little more strength than I had the moment before. You are providing courage to keep moving forward for more readers than you likely realize.

And also thank you for continuing to share your writing (even on your "break"!) - your stories remind us all what can be accomplished. You are a wonderful writer!

I believe you can do it! I believe you can heal! I believe in miracles! I believe in you!

Don't ever give up on yourself... The first thing is change how you think of it all...

To see yourself sticking around longer than your parents, to see yourself celebrating the major events in your children's life, to see yourself holding your grandchildren...

There are people who can help, there are tools that can help...

There is so much more I can say, but I'll stop here in case my drift is not for you...

But if it is, then keep in touch, I am on Twitter...

From My Heart To Yours...