Four Months, Four Years, Four Lessons: Notes on Survivorship

“My surgeons’ skills have added time to my life, more time with my wife, more time with my kids. Thank you to my entire medical team.”

Adam, October 13, 2016

I published my first blog post to this site in early October, 2016. That post came right around four months after hospital discharge (the “Four Months” in the title of this post). I checked into the surgery floor at IU Health Methodist Hospital with Whitney early in the morning, May 26, 2016. Four years ago, to this day, May 26, 2020 (“Four Years” in the title).

In my first personal blog post, I wrote the words you see quoted above. I include those words here to signal my continued gratitude for my team. These thanks are well placed, as our family recognizes this significant day in our calendar.

Today marks four years after my craniotomy and surgical removal of a seven centimeter primary brain tumor from my right parietal lobe, an area of the brain responsible for five major functions, including sensation, motor control, and spatial reasoning.

Today we met (virtually) with my neuro-oncologist to hear the results of my recent MRI scan completed Saturday (May 23, 2020). This is a scan we will not soon forget. Masked, we entered the hospital Emergency Department because the general radiology entrance is closed on the weekends. (Radiology shares a back hallway with the ED for trauma-related imaging.) The security checkpoint includes a metal detector that reminds us of the complex social conditions that surround the lives of some people cared for at the county hospital. We also wondered what further precautions would shape the encounter during a time of covid-19 related restrictions.

Whitney and Adam pre-MRI, May 23, 2020

Worth mentioning, also, after an area of slight concern appeared on our prior MRI in February, our oncologist recommended adding an imaging technique called perfusion to this recent scan. The perfusion technique lengthens the duration of the procedure by several minutes and includes placement of an IV and additional injection (beyond the routine contrast dye) to study blood flow.

Here we were, then: After four years, something like 25-30 scans, despite our typical anxiety (scanxiety) that accompanies each routine MRI, we faced new circumstances, if only slight disruptions: Whitney’s recent course of illness after testing covid positive, the masks we donned, the secure entrance, distancing from others in the registration line, the new imaging technique, the empty hospital absent of visitors, and the pervading concern that maybe we were catching new tumor growth in its nascency.

Our visit this morning revealed news of a positive outcome: The scan shows no new growth, and our doc chalked up the concerning area to late-effect radiation damage. We might relax our concern for the near-term, and we look to August for our next routine MRI.

I do not want to let this day pass without offering something constructive after 48 months living with a disease that kills many in half that time (“Four Lessons”). These are not definitive, action-guiding principles for life. They are simpler. They are variations on a theme that I shared during a talk at Stanford Medicine X in 2019, refined and updated for my presentation at the End Well Symposium at the end of last year, and shaped by the contours of my personal manuscript that hopefully finds its way to print over the next year. These are lessons from living, while dying.

Consider your quality of life today. When faced with a decision in the operating room to pursue aggressive surgery at the risk of left-sided paralysis or take a conservative approach that would protect my motor function but leave tumor remaining in the margins of the surgical area in my brain, my surgeon instructed that I, “Make a decision based on your quality of life today, not what you think it may be in the future.” This turns out to be good advice for living in general, not only in the operating room. Each of us has an uncertain future. It is good to plan for the future, mitigate against harms and obstacles, and yet all any of us have for sure is the present moment. Arrange your life so that it aligns with your desired quality of life today, not an imagined future.

Face fear with familiarity. Focusing on the present and allowing the future to unfold is frightening because it asks first that we allow the uncertain and unknown into our lives. I suggest that we face fear with familiarity. What information is available to us today? What is within our control today? What is the immediate source of our negative emotions and intrusive thoughts? Becoming familiar with those things we may attend to in the present helps us acknowledge our fears, not to escape or dismiss them, but to become familiar with the inner workings of our brains that are wired to alert us to danger, even when that threat isn’t right in front of us. Familiarity is the antidote to fear, and I am reticent even to express this sentiment because fear is not intrinsically bad. Allow yourself to fully experience that breadth of human emotion, but center yourself with the focus on what is present and at-hand.

Consider what to say to a cancer patient. When I instruct others to consider quality of life today and leave the future uncertain and unknown, I am flirting with everyone’s favorite thing to say to cancer patients, “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow.” This phrase and the war metaphors that are prevalent in disease rhetoric are two facets of the illness experience that I’ve objected to in blog posts, tweets, and op-eds. They are more than unhelpful; they are harmful. Taking the latter first, the problem with framing cancer as a fight or battle minimizes the potential for wholeness and wellbeing that are available when an illness is embraced into our life narratives. A war leaves casualties, winners, and losers. Surviving is not a victory and death is not a failure to fight. Instead, maturity and growth through illness are possible, whether treatment leaves us with no evidence of disease or end-stage progression. Wars and battles leave little room for growth and acceptance, what scholars call existential maturity.

This advice specifically, and the next, are sensitive to the context of the patient and their preferences. I know many patients who frame their own experience as a fight, and that is their metaphor to claim. For me, in my most insightful moments, I’ve felt more the sage than the soldier. Illness leaves us with wisdom, not war.

Rethinking thoughts and prayers. This is a tricky one. We each are licensed to our beliefs, and all of us should extend as much charitable interpretation as possible to the words that others speak to us. I remind myself often that others express their very best intentions, and those intentions supersede the literal words they use. Though I’ll say this, it is very common for folks to cope with another’s serious illness by fitting that person’s illness into a Divine plan. I cannot get on board with this. It does not fit my conception of The Divine to imagine that I was singled out, given a potentially life-limiting disease, and by those circumstances, forced our kids to face the loss of a parent, so that God could teach a lesson through my experience. For God, whatever God is, surely there is a better way to teach lessons than clamp me to a table and open my skull. When encouraging someone facing illness, center your religious beliefs in what brings you comfort as the friend and observer, but be careful not to thrust your beliefs onto the person experiencing the illness. I recognize that your show of support for me is expressed through your carefully considered prayer and meditation for my healing, but healing may not be a cure. The healing may be my acceptance that no cure is available.

As you move forward, navigating these uncertain times of public health crisis, you may consider these lessons that I’ve practiced these four years: Align your decisions to your desired quality of life today. Live presently and familiarize yourself with those things that you fear. Consider healing, wellbeing, wholeness, and personal growth that may come through experiencing illness. And extend charity to others while respecting their beliefs.

The sick role

Last week Whitney and I launched a GoFundMe campaign, and we published our needs to the community with this blog post. We reached our goal within hours of the post, and in the following days, we doubled our goal. We are incredibly thankful for the amazing community that continues to support us, now in our third year facing brain cancer. We received generous contributions from all areas of our lives! The Facebook community of friends and family shared our campaign almost 60 times! On Twitter, the home of my academic networking, many of our followers retweeted the blog post and contributed. On LinkedIn, despite it being the social platform where I am least engaged, we managed to drum up support after a friend and healthcare professional shared the blog post, calling it a “must read.” For the generosity and social awareness, thank you does not adequately express the months, if not years, of easier breathing our family will experience after your selfless giving. Thank you.

 

I am most humbled by the fellow patients, care partners, and widowed members of our community who left comments and shared posts explaining that our family’s financial struggles, though painful and contextualized to our circumstance, are nevertheless common to nearly everyone facing serious illness and advanced cancer. When I manage to capture in writing the experience shared by so many others, I am reminded of my strengths and the privilege I have to raise my voice. The call was to help us financially, and we thank you for that, yet what I carry with me are the thanks offered by others for explaining financial toxicity in an accessible way.

 

In the 1950s a sociologist named Talcott Parsons described a concept he called the “sick role.” According to Parsons, people who are ill have both rights and responsibilities. The rights are to protect the dismissal from normal functions in society, while the responsibilities of the ill are to partner with healthcare professionals in an effort to get well.

 

Illness is a social deviance, according to Parsons. Deviant because the seriously ill are no longer meeting the expectations of their assigned social roles. And so while not responsible for their illness–not blameworthy for illness–the seriously ill operate under an umbrella of sanctioned deviance. Deviance that is policed.

 

I was discharged from the hospital after deemed medically stable after brain surgery. I was transferred to an inpatient acute rehab facility, where I started in a wheelchair. I was discharged from the inpatient facility able to walk with the use of assistive devices. While inpatient, my bed and wheelchair were outfitted with alarms that would alert staff if I tried to get up or transfer on my own. I rang the call button if I had to use the toilet. For weeks I had someone standing with me in the bathroom. Policed deviance.

 

These days, I work part-time, but I report my earnings every month to two different agencies. I undergo medical review annually. We submitted a “doctor’s note” to lobby the school transportation office to allow a bus stop in front of our home so I would not need to navigate potential weather conditions to walk the several houses to the assigned bus stop. I am offered the occasional honorarium (a one time payment) for speaking in conference settings, but rather than thank the organizers and take pride in my work, I complete paperwork to account for my earnings.

 

This is policed deviance. This is the sick role, some sixty years after Parsons introduced the concept.

 

Our algorithms saturate social media feeds with targeted advertisements, but our health and insurance systems are unable (or unwilling) to take readily available data, such as the nationally standardized diagnosis codes (ICD-10) to drive decision-making logic that, for example, excludes people with terminal illness from medical review.

 

I answered a call from my long term disability provider just this week with the question prompt, “What more support do you need from us to get you back to full-time hours?”

 

Curing my brain cancer would be a good start.

 

I conclude this post with where I began: Thank you for the generous outpouring of support you showed our family these past two weeks. We are profoundly impacted by your generosity, and all of us are enjoying a better, more peaceful home life as a result of your giving. We stand a chance now of actually getting back on our own two feet–or two feet and a cane, whatever. Our kids continue their activities. Whitney may be able to step away from the several “pick up days” she takes at work. Thank you, thank you.

 

Still, there is the nagging reality that our deviance is sanctioned, our freedom is policed, and so beyond the existential threat of serious illness, there is the threat of regulatory authority that could take away our protections at any time. That threat may only be met through civil, honest dialogue, and a commitment toward protecting the rights of others. But rather than view people with illness as deviants who must be policed in their dismissal of social roles, how might we lift up the experiences of the seriously ill to teach us all something about humanity? About how to live each day? About insurance and healthcare and what “work” is rewarded. How might we elevate serious illness rather than police it?

 

We have more work to do.

We Wait. We wonder.

Many have reached out to our family recently with help or requests to offer help. For that we are grateful. Many have said, “what can we do?” We invite your support. I want to address what is so challenging about living life with advanced cancer. If you are interested, I encourage you to read on, to learn more about the difficulties of “survivorship.” If you would like to help, you can find information near the end of the post. If you are facing your own experience of illness or are affected by those who are, this post may shine a light on these challenges, so that you may be supportive to your loved ones. We truly are in this together.

 

When facing a serious illness, in our case, a terminal cancer, the diagnosis–receiving it, I mean, sitting beside your spouse or loved one, across from your oncologist, while their nurse reaches to grasp your hand–is a watershed moment of devastation and uncertainty, but before planting your feet on the ground, you are undergoing more scans, preparing for surgery, coordinating daily rides to the radiation therapy treatment center, and learning how to mitigate the side effects of chemotherapy. This is “active treatment,” and for all of its complications, interruptions, and social costs, at least you are “doing something.”

After active treatment, after the diagnosis is accepted, after life with brain cancer shifts from the center of your life toward the background and casts a shadow to shade every experience, this is when we feel most helpless; frustrated.

This is survivorship.

I’ve talked about this before to describe the uncertain period of time after active treatment, but before “disease progression,” the clinical language for the growth of cancer.

Brain cancer, even after near-total surgical removal, can, and often does, “recur” because microscopic cancer cells are difficult to distinguish from healthy tissue in the brain, and these hidden cells grow quickly to form new tumors. In the words of my neuro-oncologist, “it is extremely unlikely that you will not have a recurrence.” It is so unlikely, in fact, that we wring our hands nervously every eight to twelve weeks, waiting for the MRI results, for “disease monitoring.”

Scanxiety.

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An MRI scan showing the “surgical cavity” after removal of Adam’s brain tumor. The darkened area is the void left after removal. The lighter areas are inflammation and possible cancer cells.

But regular episodes of brain scans, or “imaging,” and the 24 to 48 hour lag time to meet with our oncologist to hear the results, does not adequately capture the full experience of living each day with this ambiguity. Imagine that regrowth of cancer is imminent, but when the recurrence may occur is totally uncertain. There are no preventative measures to be taken; no clear actions to mitigate the risk factors; the risk factors, themselves, are unknown.

People often say, “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow.” Yes, you could, and yes, that’s a good reason to put your heart and head into something that matters to you every day, but waiting for disease progression is different. See, I know the bus is coming, I just do not know its route; whether it’s running on time. I do know that as my disease progresses I may be subject to a second (or third, fourth) surgery, or more radiation therapy, likely to cause cognitive impairment after the first round beamed a lifetime dose into my brain as part of the standard treatment protocol. With progression, I may expect language impairment, loss of memory, personality changes, inability to read or write… these are all possible symptoms to present if (when) the bus shows up.

So we wait.

We wonder.

We dress our children and stir the oatmeal. We sign homework folders and take out the dog. We manage the logistics of three children and a single driver. We swim against the current of cancer to create a childhood for our kids that resembles normalcy.

But it isn’t.

It isn’t normal.

We sign up our kids for soccer, and another in art class, and we move money from one credit card to another with a lower interest rate, and we scribble back of the envelope calculations every month to make sure we’ve earned enough to pay the bills, always mindful that if my income exceeds the Social Security Administration earnings cap, which is federal poverty level, my disability disbursements will be cut back or suspended, disincentivizing work, even the little I can tolerate on a restricted hours, work-from-home status.

We wake up some days and speak to 130 first year medical students (like I did recently), and we take the main stage of conferences to motivate change in healthcare (like I will next month), and we organize local fundraisers to raise thousands of dollars for brain tumor nonprofit organizations (like a team of us have done for two years), and we put on scrubs and help care for people after strokes, trauma, amputation, while our loved one struggles with their own health at home (like Whitney does each day).

We wake up other days, nauseated, lightheaded, and we wonder if these are early signs of recurrence. Or maybe just a headache.

We wait.

We wonder.

It isn’t normal.

You affirm every day that it is good to be alive. And it is good to have the opportunities to take a terrible circumstance and channel that energy toward good works. You are grateful for supportive employers who let us get away with far too much, and appreciate our work all the same. You acknowledge a terrific community of friends and family–and strangers–who send gift cards in the mail to buy groceries, or cut generous checks that cover a month’s worth of rent, or discreetly hand over folded bills to purchase nutritional supplements for your oldest child who’s at risk for developmental delays, if he doesn’t gain weight and increase calorie consumption, so they tell us.

But you recognize that community support has a limit. And asking for help is humbling, if not humiliating, and you think maybe you should bite the bullet, find a way to return to work full time, lose the benefit status, but make up the earnings in income. But you reflect that people with “normal” life expectancy end up wishing they pursued something more aspirational with their lives, and you do not have normal life expectancy–”it is extremely unlikely”–so why fight symptoms and fatigue in a modified or adaptive work setting, when your time can be filled reminding healthcare that it’s a human practice more than it is a scientific one (as I have tried to do speaking and writing). With all of these thoughts circling your mind, you are grateful you’ve lived for three years with something that kills some people in ten months, but you ask, how can we live three more years this way?

We wait.

We wonder.

I was diagnosed with glioblastoma 38 months ago. Our community has carried us these three years. You gave generously to our family in the Fall of 2016, immediately after diagnosis.

Now we invite you to support our family again.

Whitney and I have lived in the open with blogging, speaking, and often, wearing our hearts on our sleeves. It is in this spirt that I tell you, we have deliberated the publishing of this post for the past several weeks. The problem we face after three years of survivorship is summed up in this article review of a recent National Cancer Institute (NCI) report: “patients with malignant brain tumors accrued health care costs that were 20-times greater than demographically matched control subjects without cancer.”

Despite Whitney’s tireless work with four (yes, four!) jobs (1. inpatient occupational therapist; 2. sub-acute care for the elderly occupational therapist; 3. developmental preschool occupational therapist for children; and 4. part-time yoga instructor), and my part-time work and occasional honoraria for public speaking, plus my disability benefits, we close the monthly budget gap with credit cards. Copay expenses go toward my medications, specialists, and our share, after insurance, of the $115,000 brain surgery that gave me the best chance at longer-term survival.

We must ponder the following questions:

Medications or kids sports?

Copays for the best doctors and mental health professionals for our kids or trips to the zoo and new clothes for school?

The freedom for me to speak at medical conferences, publish articles, and continue work on my book manuscript or exhaust all of my energy reserves working as much as my income cap allows?

Maximize each day of my limited life that remains, whether that is three months, three years, or thirty, or sit at the dining room table with Whitney for another month worrying about bills?

The choices we make are choices of personal goals and values. Whether your values align with ours, influences your decision to help in the way we are asking. If we are not so aligned, that is OK, too, we are still in community.

For those who have helped us: friends, family, siblings, parents, cousins, faith community, former professors, we thank you.

For those curious how you may do more, we have launched a GoFundMe to help our family close the monthly budget gap. If nothing, we have tried our best to be transparent through illness. We thank you for donating toward meeting a $8,000 goal to give our family a little breathing room this Fall.

A&W | #AandWTumorTakedown

Unraveled

“I think this is the winter everything unraveled.”

 

I sent this text to my spouse, early Sunday morning, February 2019, calculating battery time remaining on our family iPad, as the kids huddled on our bed, while the neighborhood lie dormant with a power outage. Thick February skies quieted our home, and a drizzle of late winter rain needled dry, fallen leaves as they leapt from brown grass, animated by gusts of wind.

I took my usual position, leaning against the kitchen counter, near the coffee maker (currently, useless), and I scrolled my Twitter timeline. Social media is one of a few avenues for my peer engagement. My driving restrictions limit my time outside the home, and so, my adult interactions. My spouse and I desire, naively, for ourselves, parts of the lives each other leads. She prefers to stay home with house chores and our kids. I prefer to be in the world of work and errands, engaging peers and colleagues.

Or so each of us thinks, anyway.

The grass-is-greener phenomenon describes our envy. I suspect many working parents or guardians, with an at-home partner, relate to these emotions. We sell short the feelings of our partners when we project our idealized circumstances onto the other, “if I were in your shoes…” This tendency to imagine the best case scenario and fault our partners for either complaining about, or failing to recognize, the privileged position in which they hold, may be explained by a failure to listen closely. The daily texts, abbreviated and curt phone calls, the end of day exasperation, sighs heavy with frustration, and hyperbolic complaints (“I just can’t do this anymore”) indicate that we feel our voices are not recognized; that we do not feel heard. Quieted.

Empathy is something like the ability to take on the mental states of another person, but too easily do we slip into ourselves, experiencing what the other faces, rather than stretching our imagination to consider how might we feel if we were the other person, replete with their body, feelings, emotions, circumstances, and standpoint, facing those same circumstances. Sympathy describes the former; empathy, the latter. Sympathy is the identification of challenges facing another, and we consider what if we were “in your shoes,” as I mentioned. Empathy requires deeper consideration. We may ask, “what if I were this gender, with this age, with those lived experiences, with these responsibilities, facing this situation. That is empathy. We won’t get it right. Sympathy is cheap, and empathy requires practice. Cheap and easy often trumps deeply considered and practiced.

Sympathy is extended in virtue of a power dynamic, where the person expressing sympathy assumes they understand what the other person is experiencing and takes license to dole out advice. Empathy reveals vulnerability because it undermines our power. A truly empathetic expression–if one is achievable; see: consideration and practice–reveals that we have limited means to truly imagine our way into the experience of another. We are restricted and biased by our own experiences. We cannot separate completely our unique perspective and position from the perspective of whom we are attempting to relate to empathetically. And so our power, our confident, arrogant, envied, “if I were you,” power must be set to one side. We must admit we are powerless to adopt another’s perspective. We are mistaken to think our “if I were you” advice is either helpful or relevant. At best, we practice empathy.

Practicing empathy requires a commitment to listening closely. Like reading the words of a compelling novel, we must give ourselves over to the narrative. We cannot hear the story through our eyes. We must stretch ourselves to becoming that character featuring in the narrative, while admitting our ignorance and powerlessness to achieve this aim. The attention paid to our favorite novels guides the attention we are to pay to our loved ones. Though, in the real life interaction, our imagined character has a voice, speaks back to us, co-creates a shared space for meaning, where the words and events one person selects to construct and share are risk-laden sacrifices because we offer ourselves with no guarantee the stories we tell are interpreted with the intended significance. Our meaning may be lost in the transmission. The author of the novel recognizes this tacitly: the words on the page are open to interpretation. We do not recognize this so easily as speakers in relationship because we rely on the nuance of verbal communication. Still, interpretation features saliently in how we perceive others.

In this way, sacrificing ourselves on the alter of intended meaning is an act of vulnerability. We give away our power to create meaning for ourselves by transmitting our meaning-laden experiences of the world into the shared space of co-creation, between ourselves and another. If I were to generate the confidence to share my feelings, I cannot be certain those feelings are respected with the same reverence for which I hold toward them, in virtue of those being my feelings.

Practicing empathy forces us to pursue an unachievable end, and to admit our powerlessness to embody the experience of another. Even a very close, intimate other. We act vulnerably when we admit we have little license to say confidently, “if I were you.” Sharing our experiences is likewise an act of vulnerability. We are powerless to convey the deep, personal meaning of our experiences. And so, interpersonal communication, by virtue of its very nature and aim, is a resignation of power. Those with whom we communicate most intimately, where the stakes are highest, with our loved ones, is where we stand to lose the most. In this shared space lies the recognition of our failure to empathetically relate; in this shared space lies the failure to guarantee the transmission of how we feel. Admitting failure, or admitting our limitations, at any rate, is giving up power.

We often do not recognize this because rather than practice empathy, we slide into sympathy: “Oh, if I were leaving the house each day to go to work I’d have richer interactions with peers and not feel so burned out at home”; “If I were able to be home each day with the kids and stay up on organizing our house, I’d have much less anxiety.” These sympathetic, power-reinforcing dynamics, that fool us into thinking we understand the circumstances of another, and so have the warrant to offer advice, protect us from pain because they protect our power. But to connect empathetically, to stretch ourselves beyond sympathy and practice empathy, requires we flatten the power dynamic. Empathy acknowledges authentic communication seeks for itself vulnerability and humility.

When power is resigned, we open ourselves to pain. We may feel quieted when our voices are not heard. Our power has not been given freely. Our power has been taken from us. Powerless, we seek ways to take punitive action. We hurt and so we look to regain power through threats, angry statements, and nonverbal signals. Avoiding affection, restraining intimacy, limiting authentic communication, seeking emotional relationship with others are actions the vulnerable take to restore the power balance.

 

“I think this is the winter everything unraveled.”

I recognize that I feel powerless. I do not pretend to speak for my spouse. I’ve claimed in this post, we cannot achieve a fully empathic connection. Though I have not said a goal should not be pursued only in virtue of its far and uncertain reach, even if beyond our grasp. In other words, connecting empathetically is a goal worthy of our practice. Without claiming too much, I imagine my spouse to feel powerless, too.

Freely giving up our power, it turns out, is a powerful act. It is an expression of trust, an expression that I can share my feelings and experiences and my partner can be trusted to tease out subtle and nuanced meaning. Freely giving up power is an effective response to feeling our power is taken. Quieted. We affirm, others may affect our powerlessness, but vulnerability is an act we may attend to on our own terms.

I am powerless, vulnerable, and from this place, maybe I am prepared to achieve a greater degree of empathy.

Relationships are built on communication, verbal and otherwise, and each act of communicating is open to interpretation. We hold power foolishly when we imagine with hubris that we know what others are going through, but when we freely give our power to another, when we say, I am worried. I am hurt. I am afraid. When we stop thinking, “if I were in your shoes,” and stretch ourselves to imagine the life-world of another, that vulnerable sacrificing of power just might be the way forward.

Living with Cancer: Insidious and Destabilizing

“Don’t think, daddy! You can’t think right! You have a brain boo boo. Just ask me next time.”

Isaac, our confident, insightful seven year old, the oldest of our three boys, said these words to me this morning, when I shoved his lunch box into his backpack while rushing out the door to catch his school bus. The prompt for his cutting remarks was my explanation of the contents I packed for his daily lunch. “I thought you liked that stuff!” I muttered dishearteningly, with a mixture of confusion and exasperation.

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Isaac, seven years old, before school, January 2019

My crime: thinking, or rather, as we may say as adults, assuming, and on that charge, I am surely guilty. I assumed a handful of snacks, protein, a juice box, and a square of chocolate would be a fine lunch for our oldest guy who is limited in his food options, after Whitney and I discovered, with the help a functional medicine practitioner and blood, urine, and saliva testing, that Isaac suffers from several food allergies.

I’ve raised before the issue of talking to kids about cancer, but what we face, the daily grind of parenting three young boys, my spouse who must work outside the home to serve as our primary earner and carry our medical benefits, and the primary at-home guardian, me, suffering from brain cancer and the host of accompanying neurological disorders–namely, headaches, seizures, and motor impairment–is a combination of factors that affects our kids in untold ways. It affects me, too, in a deeply fracturing sense. A fracturing of my will from my ability; my plans for the future and my practical responsibilities.

Surely we all squabble with our kids, and for this reason, motivated by a desire to connect, or to comfort by striking chords of relatability, or for fear of peering too closely at a situation that is all too frighteningly real, friends say to me, “yeah we get lip from our kids, too,” or “we also have a picky eater.” But the burgeoning independence and personality of an oldest child, or picky eating habits or allergies, and even the stressors of an at-home guardian fail to address the insidiousness of serious illness.

“You can’t think right! You have a brain boo boo.”

 

The 17th c. philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in his important work, The Leviathan, envisions conditions for people absent of government oversight: a “state of nature,” he called it. Important to note is that Hobbes is writing in a time when Europe is ravaged by a bloody civil war and political crisis. At any rate, Hobbes considers life to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” in this state: “a war of all, against all.” Hobbes did not consider this a historically accurate description of pre-political humanity; rather a thought experiment to motivate his political theory.

During my first semester as a philosophy undergraduate we read excerpts from Leviathan. My professor pointed out the “insidiousness” of the imagined “natural state.” The point, my professor emphasized, is not that everyone is locked in combat. Instead, the threat of instability looms large, and this unsettling psychological state is a hinderance on people’s desire to live well.

 

Living with cancer is insidious and destabilizing. A psychologically unsettling state. After active treatment has ended, at least for brain malignancies like glioblastoma, patients enter a period of disease monitoring: MRI (brain) “scans” every eight to twelve weeks. The return (recurrence; regrowth) of glioblastoma is near certain, regardless of surgical success or response to chemotherapy. After recurrence the disease is near universally fatal, and the five-year survival rate is a dismal 5.5%.

 

My working life, that is, “work” in all forms, including: my paid part-time work, and also writing (blog posts like this that you are now reading), speaking, interviewing, advocating, and so on, is taking its toll on me both physically and emotionally. My days end in fatigue, and continuing to tell my story, though with innumerable positive implications for myself and others, is also like retuning to the scene of the crime. I am surely threatened by this destabilizing psychological state. Do I continue to work? Do I retire to a life focused on family and permit myself to let go of self-governed responsibilities, or, like Hobbes, are these self-governing practices the only things separating me from a natural state?

 

Following my son’s ill-delivered but insightful advice: it would be better not for me to assume, but to ask all of those closest to me and to myself, how might I best seek a life well-lived?