What Is Dying? What Is Living?

“Ain’t it funny how it seems…as soon as you’re born you’re dying!” – Iron Maiden

I think I’ve used this quote to start a similar post…but whatever…cancer card!

One of the worst parts of this whole cancer experience is the idea that my body is dying or at least deteriorating in some way. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life developing my personal character through self-education, confidence building, and so on, all essentially cerebral pursuits, but it’s only been in the past 7 years or so that I’ve really come to understand the value of a strong physical existence, of living as well as possible. There is something secretively rewarding knowing that all the philosophers throughout time, all the celebrities, all the priests and cult leaders, all the wealthiest CEO’s….can’t outrun me should we ever step into the woods or on the roads together. So to come to this appreciation of the physical self and really, REALLY experience it’s value in my life, and to then have it get stripped away is incredibly difficult to reconcile. THIS is what I do. The one thing above all other interests I’ve taken into my life, running is the one that sets me apart…and so to have that taken away…well, it just sucks.

Of course, it’s not GONE…it’s just compromised. I can still throwdown to some degree, though I can’t last as long. I can’t attack the hills with the same speed anymore. And my breathing is labored from the get go. But it’s not GONE…it’s just being attacked as I’m attacking back. And, unfortunately, the tag team of cancer growth and chemo poisoning are a foe stronger than my efforts. I don’t deny that. And so as time wears on, I really fear that slow deterioration that is going to consume my body and cause complications further down the line.

But you know what…I’m still alive. But you also know what…I’m dying. Truly. I’m dying because my body is deteriorating through cancer and chemo, and if cancer doesn’t give up (as the CT Scan just showed) then this deterioration is a quickening process that will end in my death. I’m not going to mince words about this or hide the truth. That is the reality of my situation.

The funny thing though, is that I’m also living….as in growing stronger. I’ve ceased looking at the concepts of life and death through a linear perspective, where there is a beginning point we start from and then an endpoint that is our funeral. I choose to look at the concepts of living and dying as a constant exchange of deterioration and strength. No one would look at a newborn and say, “They are now dying”….UNLESS that newborn has a defect that is quickly deteriorating their body. So the same goes as adults and even with the elderly. You can look at a 40, 50, 60 year old and start to say, “They are beginning to die”, but that’s not true. Everyone, to some degree, has the ability to START LIVING through the process of strengthening themselves against deterioration. Someone with a heart that is becoming continuously clogged with saturated fats is in a process of deterioration and dying, but should that someone change their dietary and living habits, they can immediately reverse the process and start strengthening and living again. You following me?

So, this is where it gets harder for me. I wanted to believe the chemo was killing my cancer, though I was very reserved, for good reason it turns out, to internalize that. I wanted to believe that my dying process was being slowed, or even halted, so that in the meantime I could get back to living, to strengthening my physical body. But, well, that’s not happening. And it hurts, because at the SAME TIME I AM living, meaning I AM strengthening myself post-surgery. I am getting stronger and stronger in my legs, in my abdomen, in my lungs.

And none of it is stopping my dying.

Because the one thing that IS deteriorating me, that IS killing me is NOT stopping. And in this consideration, that is the ONLY thing that matters to me. I don’t care if I can run a marathon at 5:30 pace again right now (ok, that would be awesome again), because if the end result here is a quickened dying, then the glory is short lived. I want to continue living, to continue to experience so much in life, to watch my son grow, to love again, to run Brown County from end to end and back, and on and on.

So, my efforts are, although infused with such a greater sense of importance and victory right now, also more bitter than sweet. Because even as I bask in my trail run from this morning as I type this, the cancer slowly divides and multiplies within me, unless we find a way to stop it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t say all this as a manner of giving in, of giving up, of, excuse the phrase, rolling over and dying, but rather because it’s a consideration I am forced to consider. Forced to. Earlier in my life I could consider dying as a philosophical practice, and then post-diagnosis I consider dying out of necessity, but now I consider dying because it feels closer than ever….which, again, is weird, since in other aspects of my life I feel as if I’m living and growing and strengthening, as if I’m crawling out of my darkness and back towards my previous life. But, again, that fucking CT Scan. The evidence doesn’t lie.

But don’t consider this giving up. It’s not. It’s my healthy, necessary, frightening consideration that I’m sharing with you in a manner of trust. Believe me, no matter what deterioration process takes place (slow, fast, not at all) I’m going to continue living and strengthening my life as best I know how. I’m going to continue running the trails of Brown County, riding my bike day in and day out, binge watching New Girl on the internet, drinking coffee like it’s the last cup in the world, having vegan cookie parties at xmas time, taking my son skateboarding and teaching him my best jokes, and so on.

But I still have one more consideration hovering over all of this, the idea of complete deterioration. My body is dying, in part, on the inside…but I don’t feel it. I just KNOW it because the evidence says so…oh, but that’s not mentioning the parts I CAN feel through chemotherapy side effects. But the type that REALLY worries me is the kind that begins and doesn’t end. I actually started to feel it back in April, which led to my current diagnosis. I mean, hell, my stomach was so crowded with cancer (“a 38 out of 40”) that it caused an abdominal hernia by pushing my intestines through my stomach muscles, and immediately I was having significant trouble eating, going to the bathroom, etc. etc. etc. Things were falling apart QUICKLY. And that scares me, because that’s the process of deterioration should the chemo just not work, or surgery again, or any other alternative that is presented to us. Should NONE of this work, that deterioration and dying will slowly and then maybe quickly take over my body…shutting everything down, preventing any delusional concept of living by running the trails again or anything remotely similar. That is the worst. The last thing I want anyone to say about me is, “Well, at least he isn’t suffering anymore.”

Trust me, I’ve seen that slow suffering….and it’s awful. On the other hand, the stories of people getting diagnosed and being dead 3 weeks later isn’t uncommon either, and although the suffering in those cases is minimal, it’s a lot of emotional loose ends for loved ones to try and tie up. Honestly…there is just no good end to the dying process of cancer. Period. And there is little solace to offer anyone (as I had to try just today) in either scenario.

And, well, I just don’t know what to say about this anymore. I’m living again…and I’m dying too. There is no way around that and it helps me to confront it. Believe me, I hope the latter ceases to be a consideration in the short term…I hope to have to face it at another time in my life, as we all will, when it feels more appropriate. But for now, this is my reality. And as much as I internally curse my circumstance, it is mine to curse and wait for the situation to resolve itself, one way or another.

Until then, I will resist the dying and live through every moment available to me.

Let’s all do that.


18 responses to “What Is Dying? What Is Living?

  1. “Until then, I will resist the dying and live through every moment available to me.” Indeed. More than most of us do. Good to hear that you’ve been back on the trails, Scott! Wonderful photo of BCSP on your FB page. Thank you for all of these, deeply.

  2. Great post. After reading this, I am going to drink all of my coffee like it’s the last cup in the world (and am currently doing so). I may not do a “New Girl” binge, however. On second thought, maybe I should watch at least one episode before I say that. πŸ™‚

  3. I just came across your blog through a Facebook friend. You speak the truth my friend, and I wish you all the best. I will run my long run tomorrow with a new found appreciation of running!

  4. Amazingly insightful. I was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer in 2005 (age 49) and went through the process of chemotherapy/surgery (total gastrectomy)/more chemotherapy. I am still active, enjoy running and cycling and take part in the occasional 5 or 10k event. Something tells me that you have the inner strength to deal with this.

  5. Basically every philosopher ever has tried to answer the dual questions posed in your title; and since they keep trying, I guess we don’t know yet. But, as you say, they were probably slow anyway. Though Charles Dickens was super into proto-race walking (true story: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1067056/). Anyway, your call to grab on to every available moment and inject it with life is as useful and pithy a take on the subject as I’ve heard. It – correctly, I think – suggest living as an active thing. Living doesn’t happen to you; it’s a choice you make. So: You’re living again, and that’s the best thing.

  6. Thank you, Scott for this wise post. I’m going to reread it later, and think about how to live better and more fully.

  7. Hey Scott … just came across your blog and think it’s awesome. I was 43 years old (just over 4 years ago) and diagnosed with pretty agressive prostate cancer which needed radical surgery. I wasn’t vegan at the time and after loosing my Grandmother & Mum to cancer, having my sister-in-law have aggressive breast cancer 3 years before and our daughter have leukaemia the year before I was just in a total meltdown for our family. Also my brest friend who lived down the hill was coping with terminal prostate cancer at the time I was diagnosed (he passed away nearly two years ago). I remember Farrah Fawcett saying in an interview that living with cancer was playing in a game with no rules and that’s how it felt. After a very, very black period followed by a cool spiritual experience I decided to do the best for my body from that point forward ‘no matter how much time I had left’ and after doing the research went plant based. Best decision I ever made. I have read your thoughts and ‘oh how I relate to it all’. Thank you. Love this blog and couldn’t agree more. I heard a quote a few months ago “Some people die at 25 but are buried at 80′ and what I took from that is that it’s about quality not quantity. I love my life now, my wife and 2 daugters are vegan, one daughter mostly and a son who is not yet quite there (body builder). I’ve lost 23 kg, arthritis cleared up, sinusitis disappeared and my wife’s asthma completely gone. And best of all I’ve started running (2 years ago …. barefoot!!). I also started writing and recently a blog too : ) http://kevintunstall.blogspot.co.nz/ I live under no illusion that a plant based diet will make me invinsible. I do however just love how I feel and I am more at peace with the planet and our animal friends. I’m clear thinking and do meditation and bikram … things I NEVER would have done years ago! I believe there are lessons in these things and I now realise the truthfulness of what someone said to me one day 4 years ago when my head was ready to explode “Cancer is your friend” … “what the hell” I thought!!!! Well it has been the one ‘thing’ that woke me up from a deep sleep of mediocre. I think it was the most honest thing in my life – I know it has enriched my experience. Live in the now. Acceptance is they key. Kia Kaha ….

    • Hey Kevin,
      Thanks so much for sharing your story and good words. I agree, no matter what situation we find ourselves in, living the best life is the best option. Sometimes, unfortunately, it takes drastic circumstances to snap us out of our complacency, but the most important thing is that it happens. The sooner the better! It seems like you have a good grasp on a full life and a grounded perspective on eating vegan…that will serve you well for sure. I hope the best for you and your family. Thanks for linking to your blog…I’m about to check out some of the articles and videos I’ve saved that you posted…so thanks!

      Take care.


  8. I weeped reading this. Feeling so encouraged and awakened. I don’t have cancer but I’m fighting something else. It means something to read that everyday I can vote to strengthen or deteriorate my body. I’m thankful for what you wrote. I’m saddened that cancer has stolen from you. I pray that God will give you peace and comfort and ultimately you will be cancer free.

    • Thank you for your good words Kati. I hope whatever you are battling resolves itself, or you at least live as full a life as possible in the meantime. It’s all that matters in the end, whenever that is!

  9. You are on the right path: savoring each moment, “running by feel” in your life instead of being waylaid by what the CT scan said, honing in on what truly brings you pleasure. I pray for your peace of mind through it all! None of us knows how many days we have left; the key is to make the most of what we have, and you are doing a great job of doing that!

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