When my father was diagnosed with cancer, I was given a lot of unsolicited advice from many well-meaning people on how to avoid his fate.
Despite the fact that my father has a rare form of cancer caused by a faulty gene he carries, it didn’t stop people from telling me that, somehow, this could have been prevented by the right diet, fitness plan, supplement or some combination of things.
My father’s oncologist suggested I get tested to see if I carried the defective gene. Initially, I was against it. I even wrote how I would never do it.
However, I did it in the end.
I wanted to know.
As it turns out, I am not a carrier. I also do not have the genes that make me more likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer. Granted, there were some surprises. (The company I used also gave ancestry results as well and to my amazement, I am actually slightly more European-51%-than Asian-49%. Also, regarding the former, all but 3% is Northern European which is kind of unbelievable given how decidedly non-European I look.) Still, over all, from a genetic point of view at least, I am very healthy.
When I shared my results with family and friends, many asked if I felt relieved. (Yes, I did.)
However, there was something that I was not prepared for and that was the thought by many that somehow, I was never going to get cancer, heart disease, or any other sort of maladies because my genetics suggested that I was at a lower risk than the overall population.
Simply put, that isn’t true.
Even though my risk for certain things is lower than average, it doesn’t mean that I am immune from ever developing these things. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that I am going to live a long time either. The truth is, like every other living thing on the planet, I am going to eventually die. Hopefully, it won’t be for a long time, but there is no way of ever really knowing when my time will come.
While most people outwardly acknowledge this, the truth is that as a culture, we try every time we can do deny this. Now that it is the beginning of the new year and a lot of people have made New Year’s resolutions to lose weight and get in shape, the tables at my local Barnes & Noble are full of fitness and diet book promising longevity. Look and feel 10 years younger! Turn back the clock! Everyone is united in the fight against aging and dying. No one in their right mind is expected to look forward to death.
However, no matter how much we know or think we know about our health and various health risks, we still are not in control of when and how we die.
Rather than scaring me, I actually find it rather comforting.
Accepting that some things are ultimately up to God/fate/the universe has allowed me to focus on the things that I do have control over and get my priorities in order.
It has also taught me that surrendering is not the same as giving up. The truth is, I look after my body and overall health. I’m not going to say, “To hell with it!” and start smoking, drinking and gorging on junk food, but I am realistic that no matter how hard I try to delay it, eventually, my time will come.
It may even be before I am “ready”.
Still, I can think of no better reason to truly try and live “in the moment”.
Fortunately, we don’t need a terminal illness or even the threat of one to do this.
Perhaps if we could start to look at this uncertainty as a blessing rather than a curse, we could all get a bit closer to experiencing what that is like.
At the very least, perhaps it could take away or lessen some of our cultural fear around death and dying.
Regardless, I am going to try my best to lead by example. I’m hopeful that others will sign on, too.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: elephant journal archives