A message to my patients – part of the Embrace of Aging program
“Humanity has been given a great gift: By comprehending our own mortality, we are constantly forced to reconsider the value of our lives.” – unknown
I am taking this opportunity to write a thank you to my patients, most of them men over the age of 50, who have taught me what age and mortality has taught them – valuing every day, and putting value back in for the good of others.
One of the best parts about being a physician is that I get to constantly learn from my patients. I think that most patients, when they come to the doctor, do not realize that they are giving their physician a gift – the humbling gift of being asked to join the intimate circle of their lives. This is especially true for oncologists, as we take a journey with our patients and their loved ones that often ends in their deaths. I have had the honor of witnessing the lives of hundreds of men with prostate cancer, almost all of them accompanied by a loving partner. Each one of these men has taught me something – not only through their approach to handling an incurable illness, but through their sharing the story of their life and times.
Cancer is a scary thing: for the person who has it, for their families, and for their friends. Incurable cancer, like metastatic prostate cancer, is even scarier. Rarely do I see it paralyze my men. I do not see them spending time saying how unfair it is for them to have gotten this disease. Sure, there is anger and grief, but what amazes me is the indomitable human spirit that says I accept that I have this and lets see what we can do about it. Every man wants to live as long as he can, with as much quality as he can. And then almost everyone says: What can I do to help someone else that is going to be diagnosed with this? And every person I know turns to me, and states in no uncertain terms, that they need to make sure that all of the people that count on them are taken care of, and we need to develop a treatment plan that takes everyone else into account. That is the value proposition. My patients have taught me that in the face of serious illness, they think of themselves last and others first. Not a bad way to approach life.
In sharing their journey in the last part of their life, I have learned to take the extra few minutes during each visit to not only learn who they are now, but who they have been. What they have seen, what they have experienced, what was and is of value to them. It has been a constant source of amazement to me, that no matter what job someone had, what schooling, where they lived or who they met, that every single person has spent time trying to leave the world a better place. Quietly, no horn blowing, no look at me and what I am doing! Just day-to-dayliving a life that makes a difference to those around them.
It seems to me that my men, maybe through age, maybe through illness, exhibit an unfathomable grace. Grace can be defined many ways, but what I am referring to here is the Hindu value of grace as the ultimate key required for spiritual self-realization. My guys with cancer seem to have it. They value every day as a gift. They want to make sure everyone around them is taken care of. They want to help others if they can. They don’t have time to look at the world as a negative place. They have taught me to make sure that I don’t waste time on things that don’t matter. That I better spend every day making a difference. I wish I could have learned that when I was 20. I try to tell my kids this as often as I can.
My patients, my men, have taught me to value life, and have propelled me to try to live a mission-driven life of meaning. That is why I wake up every morning fighting cancer.