A Mostly Blank Slate

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The following essay is from the NPR My Cancer weekly podcast:

I know it's a cliche, but this is the time of year to talk about how fast 2006 came and went. The year just flew by. Things seem to go faster the older you get. I remember as a kid, if you had a whole afternoon to play, you could do a million different things. These days, with that same afternoon, I feel lucky to accomplish one thing. Where does all the time go?

A lot of it just gets wasted. Sitting in traffic, the minutes tick by. Waiting in line at the bank or the grocery story eats up our time. And of course, there's hospital time, which is different from time outside the doors of hospital buildings. Have an appointment at 10:00? You'll be lucky to be in by noon. You have to get used to it. There's nothing to be done; everyone there is working as fast as they can.

Obviously, as someone with cancer, I look at time a little differently now. It's more of a finite quantity. There's a limit to the time I have left — a limit set by the tumors in my body. People look at cancer two different ways: Some think it's a good way to go, because you have time to prepare, time to do the things you need to do. I've never really liked that argument. First of all, I don't spend all my time getting ready to die. That's not the way it works. Quite the opposite.

Others think you feel the pressure of time and hear that ticking clock. Are there things you always wanted to do? Better do them quick before you run out of time. I don't really feel that way, either. I don't feel my life is incomplete. I don't feel there are a couple of things I have to do before I die. I'd just like to live a while longer. Not because I want to climb Everest, but because I like living. I'm not ready for that to end.

So here we are at the beginning of another year. Full of promise, full of the unknown. A blank slate, at least a mostly blank one. As I look forward into this new year, and look back on the past one, I have to say that, cancer or not, I'm pretty lucky. I have just about all the things I could ever want or need. I've been very fortunate. But there's one thing: It looks like I may just run out of time.

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We are all running out of time, Leroy. However, you are much more aware of it due to your illness. In a mysterious way you may be more fortunate in that you are more attuned to the fragility of life and have an appreciation for how fast it passes us by — a journey that always seems too short, no matter how long it lasts.

May 2007 bring you more time than you ever imagined... God be with you.

Sent by Susan Pinkerton | 11:06 AM | 1-2-2007

It's a fortunate person who can say that they have all they need, and have done all that they wanted to do. We here, of course, would love to see you doing this blog for a long time. It would be nice to have you with us for so long that you quit the blog because you're so busy with living and other work that you have no time for it, having said all that you could about the topic. Failing that, I know that for however long you have, you've touched the lives of thousands that you'll never meet or hear from. You've made the subject of cancer and death a little more understandable and a bit less scary. That, my friend, is monumental.

Sent by Nancy K. Clark | 11:10 AM | 1-2-2007

I experience impatient people at the doctors all the time. They get so angry, complaining that the doctor is taking too long with patients. Before I had cancer I would just let them vent, but now I can't. I tell them we are all waiting in the office of a doctor who is treating us for cancer, and that he might need to take more time with some of us, since it tends to be pretty shocking news. Besides, at least we are currently alive to complain. Perhaps if he didn't take so long with each of us that would not be the case. Most people get it after that, some don't, but at least the nurses and staff like me, and we all know that is worth its weight in gold.

Sent by Brit | 11:15 AM | 1-2-2007

Leroy, you said it all. I started following your story and blog last November 27: "The Things We Knew We Should Be Doing All Along." And my life has never been the same.

My entry point to your story was at random. My dedication to it has been to try to be a better friend to the people I know who have cancer.

My lesson from this is like looking in a mirror — the universality of human experience and aspirations should be a guide.

It strengthens my New Year's resolution to be a better friend and supporter.

Sent by Emile | 11:19 AM | 1-2-2007

"Time" never stands still. Time refuses to hear our request for "more" time. I like to think that I use my "time" to the fullest and then sometimes I stop and wonder... maybe I am using my time to get to the "other" side of time and maybe all this "time" I have here on this planet with life, family, obligations is so small compared to the "time" I will experience on the other side of "time." I have to think that with all the lifetime events that happen during my "time," time may be even better on the other side of time! I can only hope!!!

Sent by Marianne Dalton | 11:23 AM | 1-2-2007

My mom and I just got done watching that old movie Blade Runner, which I'm sure everyone has seen, where Harrison Ford plays a cop who is sent on a mission to destroy replicants who have come to earth. The only reason why the replicants come to earth is to find the man who created them, and to get answers about their longevity, how long do they have to live, why they have to die sooner than humans, and if there is any hope for them to have more time.

I just thought that really hit home with what people diagnosed with cancer must wonder each day: How much longer do I have? Is there any hope for a longer life than what is medically expected?

You mentioned wanting more time, just as simple as that. From reading your posts it sounds like you have witnessed everything a person can possibly see, have traveled the world, accomplished many life's goals. I hope you can make it through the next year and have many more experiences, even if it is just sitting in traffic, and doing all of those mundane things that is part of living.

Sent by Lisa | 11:45 AM | 1-2-2007

Dearest Leroy,

Your canvas may be a blank white for the moment, but soon it will be transformed with spectacular sunrises, children's faces and multi-hued words... YOURS!

THANK YOU.

Sent by Sue | 12:54 PM | 1-2-2007

Mr. Leroy: Thank you so much for sharing your life with us. I sent the link of your blog to my sister in the Dominican Republic who has Stage IV breast cancer. You have helped her so much... and at the same time you have helped me understand what she is going through. I call my sister every other day, and we discuss your writings. She tells me that she feels like it's her who is writing about this terrible disease, and that if I want to know how she is feeling, to read your writings. You have been such an inspiration in our lives. Thank you again, and I hope that you are in the process of writing a book. Your writings are a "must" read. Thank you again, and God bless you.

Sent by Ailsa Nazif | 2:58 PM | 1-2-2007

Leroy,

I don't have cancer (yet), and quite often I think about "running out of time" and not wanting to die. I feel like you. I'm not ready, but I know that my time will so soon be here, sooner than I wish. I can't wrap my mind around what it means to live life to its fullest, each day to its fullest, each hour, each minute. What does it all mean? I sit here watching the funeral service for Gerald Ford and want so much to believe that his death is as much a part of my own passing in some way. I want to believe that we are somehow all connected. I'm not ready to lose consciousness so soon and I'm not facing an incurable disease (yet).

Sent by Laurie | 3:15 PM | 1-2-2007

My grandmother did run out of time over the holiday season, the Friday before Christmas. The last cancer treatment, an experimental chemo, proved to be too much for her. But she was determined to beat cancer as long as she could. I am proud of her that she died trying to live. It's important to live while we can, cancer or no.

Sent by Kami | 3:18 PM | 1-2-2007

That fear of running out of time makes me feel like a young friend of mine with ADHD. Makes me frenetic and gets me in trouble all the time.

I bounce between, "God's will, not mine" and "I have to get all this done," or else. And I sometimes get to "the Drs. can't but God can; I'll put my faith in God to help the Drs."

Is that a level of denial vs. a healthy attitude? Or just the realization that I may not be in control, and may, in fact, run out of time? Not the first time, but the last.

Sent by Frank Fenwick | 5:32 PM | 1-2-2007

Leroy, there's a fascinating book, Life After Life by Raymond Moody that can really alter the way one looks at death. Dr. Moody was a physician who had many patients with remarkably similar accounts of near death experiences, regardless of their religious backgrounds or manner of death. These were stories that they told vividly at first, but quickly stopped telling because they were discounted as confusion. Moody set out to study this phenomenon and write about it. He said that it was much more common than we would guess. I myself know several reliable people who had these experiences. I fully believe them and have no fear of death — just dread the goodbye.

I don't know what you believe about this, but I challenge you as a journalist to research these stories. We aren't going to nowhere. We're heading for the adventure of our lives.

Sent by Laura | 5:35 PM | 1-2-2007

Leroy, I think of time in the ways you mentioned, but also paired with "last" almost as frequently. I have lived now for almost 11 months with stage IV lung cancer, so have probably have celebrated my last birthday (58), my last Tgiving, my final Christmas. I can acknowledge that intellectually, and have struggled sometimes with the emotion, though not as much as I thought. There were so many enjoyable minutes just living out those times. But I lost it this morning when a dear friend and her family left after a visit here in Mass. to return to Phoenix. The thought that I spent my last time with Alison is almost more than I can bear. I'll do what I usually do... give myself a day to grieve, and then turn back to the present time, always looking for the small joys that give any time its meaning. Your posts are a part of that meaning. Thanks again.

Sent by Jan Shotwell | 1:55 PM | 1-3-2007

I've avoided reading this blog — 'til now. I had begun avoiding a recent thought brought to mind by your thought on time: What if I die today, my good health notwithstanding? At almost 64 that thought came to me as I hustled up 35W in Mpls to pickup my 2+ year-old granddaughter from day care. Time, and my health, became important for this moment because in this week I'm on my own caring for this child while my daughter and her fiance are in Hawaii, and my wife is in Irelend. The babe and I have a good, strong relationship — she trusts me. What if I have a heart attack and die despite my good health? My bottom-line answer to all this irrationality was that no matter what could happen, at the moment I just must keep going, do what I can. And I suppose that's what I've always done, and this week, this year, probably will again. At this moment I'm glad to be doing what I can, and I thank you so much for doing what you can. You do it well. You'll be on my mind a long time.

Sent by Paul D. Lefebvre | 2:46 PM | 1-3-2007

Dear Leroy, As a music educator, I spend much of my day counting and measuring time. Prodding large groups to propel music forward. Trying to hold back the speeding young musician. However, as a performer/listener, I love those works that seem to make time stand still. A moment to savor the moment. It's so much harder to do in real life. Especially with cancer.

Thank you for helping so many of us sort out our reflections of time spent, wasted and savored in 2006. How did we spend our time together? Where were the good moments and what were they? With your daily entries you explain things we didn't understand, & trigger forgotten moments blurred by cancer — little, great moments with our loved ones. I tried to focus on simply BEING with my sister in the midst of all the doing. Now I'm glad we kept our running jokes, laughed at dumb reruns, sat still and gazed at the backyard trees without talking. In 2007, I hope your family can savor being together... in the midst of doing. Take care, Karen.

Sent by Karen | 2:54 PM | 1-3-2007

Laura — Thank you for your suggestion to Leroy to read the book Life After Life. I, too, do not fear death, even though I don't like organized religion. You're right, it's the goodbyes.

I found the PBS Frontline special "Living Old" (PBS Web site- you can watch it, and do read the interviews) quite a great reflection on LIVING & dying.

Sent by Laura #2 | 3:02 PM | 1-3-2007

I've heard "We could get hit by a bus" too many times to count during my cancer diagnosis. Yes, anyone could walk out in the street, get hit by that bus and be gone in an instance. To get a diagnosis of terminal cancer is like walking out in that street and then suddenly having your feet glued to the ground. You know that bus is on its way but you don't know exactly when, but there you stand — unable to move or get out the way. You stand there waiting for that bus to come and finally wipe you out.

Are we fortunate that we have this knowledge before hand, so that we can scream to our family and friends our last goodbyes and reflect on how wonderful our lives have been up to this point? I personally don't think so. I think most of us are too busy struggling to get free or hoping that someone will come along and throw some nails in the road and disable that truck headed in our direction.

Sent by Sherry G. | 3:05 PM | 1-3-2007

Do you get tired of people telling you, "We're all going to die"? Well, duh... Is that supposed to make me feel better? They're usually the ones who aren't facing the prospect any time soon. I recently visited a friend who was near death (she is now gone). She cried and wailed that she just wasn't ready to go. It was such a shock that someone actually voiced that. Usually, we're all stoic and brave and want people to remember us as courageous. I have to say, I thought it was very honest of her to let her feelings show, and I've given it a lot of thought since then.

Sent by Patricia | 3:21 PM | 1-3-2007

Aloha, Leroy,

Your commentary on your cancer hit it right on the head. Thank you very much.

Anson, going on my 3rd week of chemo for Non-Hodgkins lymphoma (former State Senator).

Sent by Anson Chong | 3:36 PM | 1-3-2007

Hi Leroy — I recently started reading your blog and receiving updates via e-mail. My husband has non-operable Stage IV Lung Cancer and last Friday was his last chemo treatment. In about 3 weeks we will go for tests and see if the treatment worked. He has an amazing doctor in Great Falls, Montana.

Have you ever considered using the Cyberknife as your radiation treatment? I ask you this because it seems to be a very precise treatment. The CyberKnife consists of three key components: 1) an advanced, lightweight linear accelerator (LINAC) (this device is used to produce a high energy (6MV) "killing beam" of radiation), 2) a robot which can point the linear accelerator from a wide variety of angles, and 3) several x-ray cameras (imaging devices) that are combined with powerful software to track patient position.

Thank you for sharing what you are going through with all of us... you have no idea how much you have helped me. God bless you.

Sent by Blanca Marckwordt-Carou | 3:39 PM | 1-3-2007

I just recently heard you on NPR and I have recently been diagnosed with renal cell cancer metastasis to my hipbone. I am on day three of 25 radiation treatments. I find your daily notes a comfort and hope for you good news about your cancer. I am real new at this cancer thing even though I am a nurse. I won't be working any more. But I will follow your progress with great hope for you to have a cure or miracle. I am hoping the same for myself. Thank you for your journal. I read it every chance I get.

Hopes and prayers for you.

Sent by Marilyn Kallman | 3:56 PM | 1-3-2007

Leroy, your words are so poignant. I hope you are clear on how you have led the way in helping others who will follow you to live their lives more successfully in the time given. What a tremendous gift this blog has been to me and to so many others. My 8-year-old daughter has a brain tumor and is doing well at present on chemo, etc., but a day does not go by without my thinking about death, not in an obsessive way, but more a recognition that death is more of a possibility now than it was before my child had a life threatening illness. although she has had this diagnosis since she was a baby. It took me a while to really get that she had a life threatening illness and might die. So I love the way you use words to paint a beautiful picture of this cancer, this living, and this dying journey we're all on. Thank you Leroy — I wanted you to know I read this blog every day and it has helped me tremendously!!!!

Sent by Alice Williams | 12:39 PM | 1-8-2007

Being the one with cancer seems easier than being the one hearing that someone has it.

My reaction to the information "...cancer..." was to think: So this is what its like.

Lung surgery was several years ago. The last x-ray, two weeks ago, "shows no change." This is the first time I have felt alarm. What the hell does "shows no change" mean, exactly.

Sent by Sandra Smith | 2:27 PM | 1-8-2007

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