NPR logo A Victory over Fear

A Victory over Fear

How do you make the shift from trying not to die to living? That's the question that one person sent in yesterday. A woman named June sent in another one:

"I know I should learn to enjoy life now, and what will be, will be. But how do you move past the fear?"

I think that they are related.

I think we all have a sort of idealized sense of "living." Making the most of every moment. Stopping to savor the little things. Living a full and meaningful life. And those are all true and things to aspire to. But they're not possible every day or every moment. A bad day for a cancer patient can mean doing little more than just getting up in the morning and making it to the couch. Life with cancer can be full of pain, sadness and despair. But not always.

I think that "living" just means doing the best you can on any given day. That's also true for everyone who doesn't have cancer. You don't have to go out and change the world every day. I think that just being the best person you can be under the circumstances, sometimes rising above our challenges, sometimes not — that's all "life."

Trying not to die is all part of that. I think it was John Lennon who said that life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans. So let me butcher his words and say that life is what happens while you're trying not to die. Everyone has plans, everyone has dreams, things they hope to accomplish in the future. Cancer patients have those plans and dreams curtailed at best, taken away at worst. But that doesn't mean you stop living.

So how do you get past the fear? Fear of what? Of dying? It's a cliche to say that we're all going to die — that's cold comfort. The fear of bad news, of the cancer spreading, or that initial diagnosis — all of those things strike deeply into our cores. But each day, each joke you tell, each friend you comfort, each friend you allow to comfort you, each of those small things lessens the fear a tiny bit. Each day lived, for better or worse, is a victory over fear.

We've talked a lot about how doctors are playing for time. How an additional few months is seen as a triumph. All of that's true, but I think that we need to remind ourselves that while we can look to the future with confidence or fear, hope or despair, that it's today, well-lived (however you define that), and tomorrow and the next day — that's what makes up our lives.