‘Man Plans and God Laughs’ — How a single day can change your life…
I apologize for barging in on your Sunday evening with this, but then again I’ve been thinking lately, ‘What day of the week is the right day to break bad news???’
How shall I approach this? It is awkward, but let me do it anyhow.
One or two of you will remember that — by dint of radical surgery four and a half years ago — I belong to an unusually small subset of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer who have actually lived long enough to tell the tale.
And yet. ‘Man plans,’ they say…’and God laughs.’
Permit me to explain. On August 19, sixty-eight days ago now, I sat down in Copenhagen’s leading teaching hospital for my regular six-monthly oncological consultation. Always good to keep an eye on things, right? Especially when so few people (5%) are alive five years after being diagnosed with my particular type of cancer.
Since however I am one of the very lucky ones to have had surgery on an early-stage tumor, and since I had enjoyed a fairly trouble-free 4½ years since the — quite dramatically radical— operation, the very last thing I was expecting was to be told that there was any kind of problem.
But P. G. Wodehouse was spot-on, it turns out, when in Carry on, Jeeves he wrote: “I’m not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.”
In my case the bit of lead piping came in the form of one word: recidivism. My pancreatic cancer was back. Worse still, it was back and rampant. As in, already unmistakably metastized to my liver. From being a ‘PanCan’ survivor with one or two occasional issues, but nothing painful enough to write home about, I was being told that I now had advanced pancreatic cancer. Stage IVb cancer. Inoperable cancer. That I am, in other words, terminally ill.
Not a good move by a 58-year old with ambitions to be 70…or even 60!
So……chemotherapy is back in my life — aggressive, four-drug chemo. (Folfirinox — don’t look it up, it’s ugly. ) Three days of treatment every two weeks. Just to keep me alive.
Twelve more months would be a decent outcome, I was told the very same summer afternoon, having been immediately passed from my original oncological surgeons to the oncologists who deal with life-extending palliative chemo, i.e. chemotherapy that cannot cure but which can prolong. (There’s a less aggressive option, but that one keeps you going only — on average — only seven months.)
So I and my family have been in a bit of disarray over the past 68 days, because this *isn’t* the movies and I have actually gone and ended up being caught out by the nastiest of all the cancers.
August 19, 2015. Unforgettable. Gives a whole new meaning to the concept of having a bad day. ;-(
The eldest of my three sons immediately flew back all the way from Denver (which he has now done twice already, bless him), and his two brothers swiftly arrived from London and Cambridge respectively. Both my own brothers flew over, and my 89-year-old uncle too. My daughter and wife were already with me.
For someone who was only in Denmark for his summer vacation and an annual check-up, things have taken what can only be called a very nasty turn. Yet I have been surrounded by so much love and laughter 24x7 since that fateful summer day that we may yet find some kind of a miracle of positivity that delays the inevitable for far longer than the doctors’ statistics might suggest — even though the odds may be longer than the River Nile!
I have already had my first four treatments through a nifty ‘port’ that has been surgically inserted into me just below my right shoulder. After the very first treatment I flew to Berlin to chair a conference in the magnificent, domed Berlin Congress Center. But then it was straight back here to Copenhagen in time for the next chemo treatment. My fifth round commences tomorrow.
As many have noticed, until I reappeared recently, I had basically been offline for quite a looooong time — unimaginable for me but, well, necessary while I was dealing with my growing suspicions.
I am not out however, and neither am I down. So you will definitely be hearing more from me in due course, I promise…
Right now all I can really share with the outside world however belatedly is how utterly surreal it is to find oneself in an unexpected bind like this. I mean, I am at the top of my game. Yet what of it? Man plans, and God laughs. Put another way, just when a feller thinks he maybe finally understands a teensy little bit about living, he suddenly needs instead to start understanding fast a whole lot about dying. (Or maybe it is one and the same. To understand the one is to understand the other.)
I am currently, to be honest, out of my depth. My one and only God-given gift, my lifelong abundance of endurance/energy/stamina, is suddenly about as useful as an ice tray in a desert. And mentally I haven’t yet quite developed the necessary openness to entropy, to the acceptance that everything that has a beginning also has an end, etc etc etc.
Making sense of all this is a work in progress.
In the meantime, my firm undertaking to my wife, my children, my family, my friends and my colleagues around the world is to submit myself to chemotherapy for as long as it makes sense — 26 treatments a year may be something of a heavy price to pay given the many side-effects, but it is a price worth paying.
I have always liked the irrepressible flair of Maya Angelou in regard of how to approach things— ‘My mission in life,’ she declared, ‘is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.’
Please join me in seeking, like Angelou, to get the utmost out of whatever time is left for me; I have no intention of ‘going gentle into that good night’ — there are too many articles I need to write, keynote invitations I need to consider, and of course emerging technologies I want to track. No one can possibly think for a moment that I am going to depart this mortal coil before finding out just how far Deep Learning is going to take us, or whether 3D Printing is really going to change the world. No way can I miss finding out just how the Sharing Economy is going to affect traditional capitalism or how exactly Cognitive Computing and Predictive Analytics are finally going to dovetail with the Internet of Things.
Nope, I am not done yet. Far from it.
As I said, no one ever said it better than Maya Angelou, unless it be the Swedish writer Per Olov Enquist.
‘En dag ska vi dö,’ wrote Enquist, ‘Men alla andra dagar ska vi leva.’ So simply expressed, yet so important. Here it is in English — with my emphasis added: ‘One day we shall die. But all the other days we shall be alive.’
Amen to that. Feel free to invite me to keynote your event, and as always I will give each and every speaking invitation my promptest and most careful consideration.
Over to you.