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To the Friend Entering the World of Incurable Disease

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To the friend who was just diagnosed with an incurable cancer,

I heard about your diagnosis last week. It was the first time in a long time your family asked me for advice. Unfortunately, ill health and chemotherapy are subjects I am well-versed in. Over the last few days I have gone into practical mode. I have talked to your wife about immunosuppression, common side effects of chemotherapy, given tips on nausea and offered recipe ideas. We’ve gone through the mechanics of it all.

Your family told me you’re a warrior, that you’re gearing up for battle. It all starts tomorrow, they said. You will go into the hospital for the first time and the war will begin. I spent hours trying to find the right things to put in a care package for you, but failed to find anything to convey what I wanted to say. So here goes:


This past week I kept remembering the night I met you, a lifetime ago. A smiling boy on a motorbike; you were the picture of health, virility and youth.

Welcome to a new reality.

You are not at war. We are not on a battlefield. This is not a fight to the death. Over this week conversations have centered on medical interventions, treatment options, on how to deal with side effects of medications. Important as those issues might be, no discussion about practicalities will tell you what life in our world is like. 

Welcome to a world where your soul will be stretched beyond what you thought was possible; you will soon discover that your capacity to bear suffering in all its forms is limitless. Welcome to a world where hope and life and joy are burning matters, tangible even in the face of absolute darkness.

Welcome to a world of uncertainty, of fear of your own body turning against you and of death arriving before you even have a chance to process your own mortality as a possibility.

You are not at war. This is not a battlefield. Our world is not a monstrous dream you can fight your way out of.

Anchor yourself to everything: to your own strength, your daughter’s smile, your wife’s love. Absorb with every fiber of your being everything that was ever good in your life; re-live it when the darkness gnaws at you. Brace yourself, but allow for the possibility of descent into an abyss of hopelessness at times. Hope always follows.

Please don’t get me wrong — not hope of a cure. I am not here to talk percentages and recovery rates. I’m talking about hope of shedding skin. Hope that the treatments, the pain, the rawness of it all will uncover you. Hope that at some point in this journey (because like it or not, this is a journey) a different kind of joy, vitality and strength will reverberate from within you. Hope of a great life in the chaos, the fear and the darkness, not in spite of it.

Welcome, my friend, to the world of incurable disease. May your journey be an incredible adventure.

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Originally published: January 22, 2016
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