The Most Empowering Thought…Once You Accept It

When you are human alive for any length of time, you will have loved ones who will get sick and die.

I don’t mean to be morbid. I’ve experienced plenty of death in my life, and I know I’m not the only one.

My maternal grandfather died from colon cancer when I was 2 years old. My paternal grandfather died when I was 12 years old from hospital acquired pneumonia and suffocated to death on his sputum. My godfather died from complications of metastatic lung cancer treatment this past July. Another uncle died of kidney failure last December.

This is reality. It’s not bad. It’s not good. It just is.

I remember the last time I visited my grandma in 2009 at the hospital and can still see her waving to me as I stopped at the door to look back one last time.

She died that weekend while I was away in Lake Tahoe with friends.

The first funeral I remember attending was when my paternal grandfather (“yeh yeh” in Cantonese) passed away. I was 12 years old and didn’t cry. I was too embarrassed to cry.

I would wake up once in a while over subsequent years after having a vivid dream of my yeh yeh having a conversation with me in Cantonese, and I’d wake up ugly crying. Crazy. It felt so real. Once in a while it still happens.

Over the years, I learned to express these emotions at least a little or else they would find another way out or they might find their way deeper into me and become who knows what.

Death and disease are part of the human experience, so why do we treat disease like warfare?

“Fight cancer.”

“Eradicate germs.”

“Battle chronic disease.”

Cancers are fascinating diseases. Cancerous cells are our very own cells that have gone rogue — growing and replicating uncontrollably.

When we FIGHT a disease, we are fighting ourselves. We wage war on our own bodies physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Is that really the way we want to approach this?

Disease can feel unfair. Disease takes our loved ones away from us seemingly too soon. Disease debilitates and creates immense suffering.

Nature doesn’t care what you want.

“Everything happens for a reason,” a mentor often said to her patients.

Disease is not random. It just feels random.

There are causes and effects. There’s still so much we don’t know about the human body and what it takes to be healthy.

Luckily, we learn more and more every day about the laws of nature. Just do a quick search of the millions of research articles you can find in journal databases like PubMed and Cochrane Systematic Reviews. The future is bright, I swear!

Could disease be our bodies trying to protect us? Could illness be a gift?

“Really? A gift? You don’t know what sick people have been through!”

Let’s put judgment, anger, and rage aside for a moment.

Let’s consider disease as your body’s way of communicating with you.

Dis-ease. Not in ease. Getting sick is your body’s way of setting off the alarm. Somehow, we have fooled ourselves into thinking we just have to shut off the alarm when the fire is still blazing.

I took a cadaver dissection refresher class a couple weeks ago — the first time I’d been in a dissection lab since my first year in medical school.

There were two cadavers. One was a 53 year old male who died suddenly because his heart stopped, and the other was a 97 year old female who appears to have drifted off to forever sleep after a long life.

These two people had the foresight to gift their bodies to students like me to learn more so that we could go on and help the living.

They continue to give even after death.

These shells of people once living reminded me that life is exponentially more complicated than it appears in my Netter anatomy atlas.

The body is a unified whole consisting of layers upon layers of tissues. Each type of tissue is invested with all the other adjacent layers — skin, muscle, fat, organs, nerves, arteries, veins, fascia, and all the other structures you can’t see with the naked eye. We were lucky to even find some of the more well known structures if we were careful enough. It’s just as easy to accidentally remove an interesting structure as it is to lose it in a mass of seemingly homogenous tissue.

The physical body is amazing, but just imagine a body powered by a soul. It becomes a miracle! If you are reading this, this is what you are! You are a freaking miracle!

Humans constructed the study of human anatomy to learn a little something about our existence. This inseparable unit is an amazing system with physical parts and a soul that animates the whole thing.

Your body has built-in sensors and alarms to alert you of danger and keep you alive. Disease and illness are these alarms. When you survive an illness, a tough time, or near death experience, it is a wake up call. You choose whether you want to pay attention to it or not.

If you smash the snooze button, the whispers become screams. Screams become air horns. Air horns become brick walls.

Smash. Splat. Squish.

You eventually have to pay attention to the messages of your body, even if paying attention means death.

No one can stop death…yet. I think it’s a bad idea to pursue immortality.

Knowing and accepting that I could easily get hit by a truck and die tomorrow creates urgency. It starts to make things very, very clear. Life becomes more precious. Every moment does count for something. There’s no time to squander.

Death still scares me. I don’t want to die, and I don’t want to lose people I love and care about.

But I am less scared of death than am I of reaching that day and realizing that I didn’t do my best to live well.

I won’t be surprised when that day comes. It always comes.

My responsibility as a doctor is not to stop people from dying but to help people to start living again.

Once we accept death as an inevitability, we can really make the most of the limited amount of life we have left.

Wasn’t that empowering?