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How I Cope as a Cancer 'Survivor'

07/05/2013 08:02 EDT | Updated 09/04/2013 05:12 EDT

Early one bright sunny morning a year and a half ago, my wife died of cancer. In my mind's eye, I clearly see our bedroom and Yuko's head tilted to the side, as if she was watching the lake from the hospital bed we had set up for her by the window. I see the calm of her face; I feel the stillness of her hands. Mostly, I hear the silence in her eyes, quiet now where only moments before -- and for years -- they had spoken so much to me. On that bright sunny morning, Yuko's light went out, and so did mine, almost.

I've never had cancer but I'm a cancer survivor, nonetheless -- and there's good reason for that.

If you're reading this, it's not because my experience is particularly unique. It's just the opposite, unfortunately. It's likely because you too are a cancer survivor in some way; you've had it, have it or know someone whose life has been altered by its horror. It's a story that ties too many of us together because of the aching similarities between our experiences. Yuko believed that you didn't have to have cancer to be called a survivor. If you have been intimately near it, you too are a survivor.

The statistics grimly illustrate just how insidious this disease is.

Every day this year, 500 Canadians on average will be diagnosed with cancer and 200 people will die each day from the disease, the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) estimates. It's the country's leading killer, accounting for 30 per cent of all deaths.

Globally, the number of new cases is expected to jump 68.5 per cent to 21.4 million in 2030 from 12.7 million in 2008, according to the American Cancer Society.

The good news is that survival rates are on the rise thanks to better diagnosing and treatment. The fact remains, however, that there still is no cure.

And so we live with it, even as we fight against it.

Time has eased my pain in the face of cancer but in the early days after Yuko's passing, I came very close to closing my own eyes. I had her morphine pills by the bed. I had the desire and the opportunity. Those were the times my grief was so overwhelming even the rays of a brilliant sun seemed cold. I don't let many people get too close to me, so I dealt with it my way: in my head.

The first time that dark thought ran through my mind it surprised me because I've never considered myself that type. I had just come back from Tokyo, where we held her funeral, and was back in our bedroom, alone for the first time. Her loss and the emptiness I felt, as cliché as it may sound, hit me like a truck.

For hours I held her pills in my hand, convincing myself that I had no reason to live. My world had been built around the two of us and now it was just me: an island of one.

As I pondered my next move I began looking at the things around me, Yuko's things. Some clothes still draped over a chair, her slippers on the floor by the bed, her jewelry. I picked up a book she had been reading, Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and flipped through the first few pages. Yuko had underlined a phrase there and while it meant nothing to me at the time, it came to rule my thinking later. I put the book down and sat on her side of the bed and did nothing. Eventually I just fell asleep.

That was the toughest night. The next day I picked up the book again and found the phrase Yuko had underlined. Murakami was quoting another runner who lived by the mantra, "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." Yuko had underlined this quote in the book because she understood it right away. You will always have pain, but how you deal with it is up to you.

It struck me, too, when I read it a second and third time, and another thought came to me: death is inevitable, life is optional. Even in her last months, Yuko was determined to live as well as possible, to smile every day, and she did. Her death was inevitable, but how she lived those moments she still had was hers to decide.

It was a small epiphany to me and the way I looked at things turned around. Since then, whenever the thought of dying enters my mind, I turn inward and ask myself, why should I die? That might seem a counterintuitive question for someone in the depths of sorrow. To me, however, it's a good question. Why should I die? Because I'm sad? Because I'm lonely? That's pretty much it, really. And those aren't very compelling reasons. It's the absurdity of the answer that makes me shake my head, and I feel the weight lift away.

The few reasons I have to rid myself of life, and conversely, the many I have for living are what I think about when I think about dying. In doing so, I realize also the importance of my continued life as framed by Yuko's death.

Taking my own moments away would be cheating Yuko out of the moments that I could live for her. Two deaths are much worse than one.

Now, she lives every time her name or picture flitters through my mind. Each time I do something that reminds me of her is a new moment of life for her. The same can be said when her life enters the thoughts and memories of her friends and family.

It's an approach to surviving cancer that has helped me move on and seize each moment.

To give her friends, family and myself a more tangible touchstone, I wrote three songs related to her and with my band simplyGoodfriends, made a CD that has nods to her life all over it. The video for one of those songs, "Come To Me, Girl," is meant to give her a permanent place at which others can come virtually and remember her. In doing so, we keep her with us. And I keep her with me, even as the rest of my days unfold. And each of those days then gets a bit easier.

Her pills are still on my bedside table, a reminder to me that each night I go to sleep with a desire to wake up in the morning is one more victory in this particular battle against cancer. I'm a cancer survivor. There are too many who aren't. That's another thing I think about when I think about dying.

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