How David Bowie Showed Us We Have Meaning, Despite Having Cancer


Holding on to our identity, a sense of who we are and what we stand for is not always easy. Especially not during a health crisis, cancer or other chronic or terminal illnesses, which can drain use of meaning.

David Bowie’s apparent consistency in living and dying strengthened and continues to inspire me. His productivity and creativity continued, even when he was dying. His music and art continue to be an expression of his life and identity, of which dying and death is an intrinsic part.

This gives me hope, as I reflect on my own mortality, especially (but not exclusively) following my treatment for cancer. People often reflect on the life-shattering power of a cancer diagnosis. Nothing is what it was up to that point. Everything is called into question including our very identity.

We may struggle with meaning, identity and purpose because very little is left predictable and certain — apart from death.

It is difficult to stay motivated when undergoing tough treatments, dealing with a range of side effects, or even in remission, which can turn into a relentless waiting game.

I don’t know any details of David Bowie’s cancer and treatment. Working in the field and having undergone cancer treatment myself, I have some idea. How much I or we know or don’t know, that is not really the point.

His last artistic and life effort, his last album “Black Star,” the lyrics and related video (released on his birthday — Friday, January 28, 2016 — two days before his death) —  all this carries a deep meaning and powerful message about determination, energy and identity.

For me, the personal meaning is so strong, that I cannot yet listen to “Black Star” — I am not yet ready to be moved, that deeply. Having cancer or other life changing illnesses can cut short our life, but not our identity, unless we let it.

In dying as in living we do not have to compromise on who we are. Being treated for cancer and even dying of it does not make us a lesser person. Illness can make us invisible, if we let it.

We can find ways to continue to leave a mark, continue to have meaning and purpose and to be relevant to others, ourselves and the world; we keep our identity. We may feel terribly vulnerable, frightened, angry and hopeless.

But if we get stuck in any of those soul destroying dimensions, then we will get drained of positive inspiration, creativity and a chance to remain an active participant in the life that is ours.

I known it’s hard, and there have been moments when anyone telling me exactly that would have got a tongue lashing from me, or I would have turned the page, or switched the channel:

What do you know Mr/s expert? Nothing!

We have to do it our own way. David Bowie made a choice, and he did it his way. He will have filled the rest of his life in a way that gave him meaning and (hopefully) authenticity and peace.

If we can stay focused on our identity, who we are, even in the face of a life-shortening or terminal illness, than the narrative will change. It will be less defeatist, humiliating, dehumanising and soul-less.

We have meaning and deserve well — always, in life as in death.

David Bowie

Thank you, David Bowie, for giving me hope and determination to hold on to my identity.

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Pixabay image courtesy of Cristian Ferronato

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