Alcoholism, Cancer and Living on Borrowed Time

A typical discussion that occurs with family or friends I have not seen in a while is being asked about the status of my cancer diagnosis. After reporting the latest on poking, prodding, and testing, I conclude with the same ambiguous prognosis that my oncologist gives me.

Recently I had this conversation with a couple of newer friends who were over for dinner. Typically, in the same way I don’t want folks to feel uncomfortable drinking around me because I am a recovering alcoholic, I too don’t want folks feeling sorry for me because of my cancer diagnosis. So, in the same way we served wine for our dinner guests, when running down my cancer status, I said something like, “I don’t mean to sound cavalier about this, but I feel that I have been on borrowed time for the past three decades and that I would have been dead long ago had I not quit drinking — so it is all good today.”

The husband responded that was the exact way he felt after being sent to Vietnam because he never expected to come back to the U.S. alive. He considers his last nearly 50 years to also be a matter of living on borrowed time.

His comment hit me like a ton of bricks! This was the first person I stated my truth to who responded with basically, “Yeah, I get that.”

In fact, I suspect there are many variations to the type of life experiences that produce similar thoughts. For me, these types of experiences bring to mind one of my favorite quotes:

“Death is not just physical dying, but going to full depth, hitting the bottom, going the distance, beyond where I am in control, fully beyond where I am now . . . When you go into the depth and death, sometimes even the depths of your sin, you come out the other side – and the word for that is resurrection.” — Richard Rohr, “Immortal Diamond”

I recollect some 25 years ago a fellow student, then in her 50s, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As a nontraditional college student at the time myself, we became friends. I socialized with her family and became a bit of a confidant around her disease diagnosis. She commented to me that being diagnosed with MS was the first bad thing that had ever happened in her life. To that point, everything in her life had been picture perfect. She could not cope with her diagnosis, opting instead to only rely on every newfangled medical treatment that might return her to the idyllic existence she had known.

I had a few years of sobriety by that point, really believed in the 12 Step Process and suggested she consider a support group to help deal with her diagnosis. Her response was there was no way she would associate with “those people” who also had the disease.

I was reasonably shocked. I watched over the months and short years as she turned into an embittered victim filled with self-pity and loathing.

I am grateful today for the opportunity to surrender to that which I am powerless, to have an attitude of gratitude, to live one-day-at-a-time, and to benefit from the many other lessons of the 12 Step Recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I am very far from perfectly applying these lessons today, however, they are a constant source from which I can draw.

Cancer still sucks, but my 1984 resurrection in sobriety allowed me to begin an ascent from the depths of despair to which I had fallen. I am truly blessed to apply these experiences in my life today.

This post was originally published on Process Not an Event.

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