Living for today with cancer

To have cancer is to change forever.  It is a devastating declaration.  Each of us copes with the diagnosis differently.   How people adjust and move on with their lives are lessons in humanity.

I take care of a patient who explained to me how he deals with incurable cancer.  Stan is active and able to enjoy grandchildren, friends and hobbies. He describes himself as happy, despite his terminal diagnosis.  The key was both difficult and simple.  He said, “that in order to survive with cancer, you need to accept that you are going to die.”

For Stan the obstacle was his struggle against the unstoppable.  When diagnosed he responded by attacking the disease. He demanded extra tests, multiple second opinions and became obsessed with an investigation of treatment choices.  He threw himself into conventional and alternative therapies.  He filled binders with data, radiology reports, tumor markers and medical articles.  He cataloged every event.  Stan was absorbed in the disease process every moment of every day and with every ounce of his being.

Wherever Stan turned, he found that his cancer was indeed incurable.  No matter what he did, he would eventually die.  Frustration overwhelmed him. The more time he spent with the disease, the more he became lonely and frightened.  He was the prototypic cancer patient…sick, exhausted, isolated and buried in medical care.  He fell away from life and started to die.

According to Stan, the answer came as a revelation.  In a particularly depressed and forlorn moment, a realization saved him. Stan did not have to fight an opponent he could not defeat.  There is no shame in mortal limits.  If he stepped back and accepted there were things he could not change, he would be alright.  Stan discovered that to be set free, he needed to drop the burden of struggle.

With his family and doctors, Stan put together a basic medical plan.  It consists of chemotherapy, nutritional support and exercise.  He has set terminal limits.  Most importantly, Stan carved out large blocks of time to be away from “health care” and return to his life.

Stan spends most of the days enjoying his family.  He has done a little bit of traveling. He has been reading and learning. He is looking forward to spring garden planting.  Stan hugs all his grandchildren every single day.  He is happy.

Each person needs to find their own way through the challenges of life and those caused by illness.  For this man the formula is difficult and simple.  Accept what he cannot change and hold on tight to the things he loves.  Seize life today, for that may be all there is…but sometimes that is enough.


  • Thanks for some other fantastic article. Where else may just anybody get that type of info in such an ideal manner of writing? I've a presentation next week, and I'm on the search for such info.
    • James Salwitz, MD
      Glad I could help. Interesting to think that a comment by a single patient can teach so many. jcs
  • Airedalelover
    Thanks, describes it perfectly. Enjoy today! Make someone smile. It is all any of us have. Takes a terminal diagnosis to understand, or at least it did for me. Like Stan, accepting death is so liberating and I feel so alive. What a paradox we live in. Keep up the writing.
    • James Salwitz, MD
      It is said that man is the only creature that contemplates his own death. This is usually seen as a curse. Perhaps a sign of personal growth and arrival may be when we use that knowledge to make each day more special. I wish you wonderful, joyous, loving days. jcs
  • Jo
    Great article. Sometimes it seems like we as patients and the medical profession are always trying to "fix" things instead of accepting them. My husband has a brain tumor...was "benign" but has recurred. Before I was just trying to help him as much as I could and help make his life more pleasant. I knew he had limitations and I knew of his past injuries and medical problems, but did not know a tumor wss still in his brain. Now that I know, I see him as a "sick" person again that has to be "fixed". I almost wish I didn't know about the tumor! I am enjoying your articles.

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