Earlier this week, on the 2nd of January, Kristian Anderson lost his battle with bowel cancer.
He and I first made contact a couple of years back shortly after his diagnosis. We are of a similar age, and have a similar life philosophy, and battle the same sinister illness. He was slightly more advanced than I was at his diagnosis. Whilst we both have our struggles with our illnesses, perhaps his was made a little more poignant in that he has two young children, all the more motivation to beat cancer, and survive.
I too relate to this drive for survival. The motivation to live is not for my own benefit, but for that of my wife and my family and friends. If I was to have children, I can only just imagine how much harder that would be.
Kristian shot to fame shortly after his diagnosis when he produced a video for his wife for her birthday. He managed to get Hugh Jackman and PM John Key in on it, and it went viral online.
After his rise into the media consciousness, Oprah interviewed him on her show when she toured Australia last year.
Throughout Kristian’s Journey, he and I have shared the highs and lows of bowel cancer. The tough times, and the joyous times. It is with a bittersweet note that he has passed away. Bitter, because it should never have happened, because he leaves behind a wife and two children, and because his life was stolen from him. Sweet, because he gets to be with his Lord, and the at times very difficult journey, has finally come to an end, the suffering has stopped.
Kristian, you were a friend whom I met through circumstance and suffering. You were a man of faith who has got to meet his maker. Our heart goes to your family, Rachel and your children will be in our prayers for many years to come.
May you rest in peace, with the Creator of the universe whom you adored so much.
Some one in my recent history once described me as an anti-hero. The terminology came about as a reference to the kind of message I have been sharing, and why it seems to resonate with people of different walks of life.
So often in life, we are sold ideas and and methodologies of how to ‘win’ in life, how to ‘succeed’ and how to get everything you want. Such is the fairy tale ending that we all seem to be after. Our lives, no matter which part of the journey we are on, seem to be aiming for this ultimate destination where we can say we have won, or succeeded, or found that place where we can live happily ever after. This idea of thinking is endemic in our culture, and is also seeping into Christian faith based practice. It would seem the measure of our life is by how well we have done in either our marriage, our job, or our material possessions.
When we are children, we cannot wait till we are teenagers and the world is our oyster. When we are teenagers, we can’t wait till we leave school and gain some independence. When we have left school, we can’t wait till we have graduated to get our first job and start earning money. When we are single, we can’t wait till we are married (or settled down) with the women/man of our dreams. Then, kids become the panacea, followed by the desire to be rid of them. Finally, retirement seems to the pinnacle of our life’s achievements. At every step of the way, the next step seems to be greener grass that we desire. The fairy tale ending is just within our reach, yet just beyond it.
By far the majority of us will never find the promised fairy tale ending. Most of us will keep reaching for the next branch, thinking that will be the final one, only to discover it wasn’t as good as we anticipated, or that there are many other branches to climb before we arrive…. arrive where exactly, its hard to say.
Perhaps that is why my story resonates with people. Statistically, I’m unlikely to find my fairy tale ending. The next steps in life for me are probably going to be painful, and full of suffering. I will endure some of the hardest things I will ever have to face, and friends and family will be dragged through the same turmoil. There is no fairy tale ending here, only sadness, mourning, loss, and grief.
If we try to find our purpose in the ending, we only end up losing ourselves in the process of getting there. What I have discovered is that the purpose is in the journey, no matter where that journey leads us. The path we are on, no matter how successful or unsuccessful is littered with stories of meaning, of relationships, and of purpose. Through finding meaning in the journey, I am at peace that my outcome will NOT be the fairy tale ending, I have found purpose in the day to day living of my life. The colours are brighter, the relationships more vivid, and what it means to serve humanity is more apparent. I’m okay with dying, and I have come to that place by finding meaning and purpose in the journey rather than the destination.
Let’s also be clear, I’m not saying that meaning is found by accepting our inevitable and slow demise, I’m saying that by realizing it is the journey that is important, the inevitable demise no longer matters. The ending, whether good or bad pales into insignificance when contrasted against the reality of living the way God intended in our lives now.
I also have to be clear on another point. I have described the meaning found in the journey above without using God language, but the reality for me is that faith is an integral part of that journey. I cannot imagine any of these things apart from God. The meaning, the sanctity of life, the value of serving humanity, all comes from one source. And as such, deserves all my attention, all my focus, and all my energies.
This is why I’m an anti-hero. I don’t talk about conquering, overcoming, or being the victor. I talk about the reality of suffering in my life, and why I’m at peace with that. I talk about why more often or not, there is no fairy tale ending.
Thanks for listening.
As we grow up in New Zealand, nicely tucked away in one corner of the globe, we are somewhat protected from the atrocities that go on at other latitudes and longitudes. We live comfortably in our first world economy, with first world medicine keeping our selves happy and healthy. We have a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in our second largest city, but no loss of life, and damage that can be easily controlled and repaired relative to that of Haiti or Pakistan.
We are comfortable, we are wealthy, and very rarely need to entertain the notion of death in our lives.
Yet when death comes along knocking, we are very quick to cry foul, call for an injustice, and argue that death does not belong there. Having spent significant amounts of time in the developing world where death is an ever present reality, it is a stark contrast to the absence, and almost ignorant bliss of death that we live with here in NZ.
When death does confront us, there is a painful process of avoiding and ignoring that goes on, which I think is ultimately more destructive than death itself. I am in a place where death is very much a part of my life. I live with the imminent threat of death, the fact that unless God himself intervenes, death is very much a part of my not-to-distant future. This fact makes people uncomfortable. People often chide in with remarks such as ‘but you are gonna live for a long time yet’ or often out right rebukes, telling me not to talk in such a way.
Well I’m sorry if the reality I live with offends people.
I have two options available to me. Firstly I either respond with a resolute hope, ignoring the facts, and the reality of cancer I live with, and blissfully continue my life as though nothing has happened. This on the surface sounds like a great idea, but what it actually does is breed ignorance. Ignorance in the process of death, ignorance in the fact that we all die eventually, ignorance in how to actually deal with death when it comes along knocking, as it inevitably will.
The second option, the one I have chosen is to openly embrace the fact that I am dying. I recognise it as a part of life that we all have to deal with at some stage, some sooner than others. This is not some dark and sadistic embrace of death, but rather an healthy acknowledgement of the facts as they are, and an engagement of life with this in mind. It demystifies the inevitable, as well as creates a hope in the present.
It is in view of death that my reality becomes all the more real…
It is in view of death that I am able to celebrate life to a much greater degree…
It is in view of death that priorities change, and the true meaning of my life, the one God has blessed me with becomes so much more apparent…
I find meaning in life by knowing that I am dying.
Through all of this, I ask, please don’t tell me to stop talking about the fact that I am dying. If it is a reality you cannot face, please at the very least give me the permission to face it myself.
I am after all the one who is actually dying… and I have found a peace in this all that supersedes the natural, and can arguably be called the supernatural.
I don’t like the fact that I am dying, but through the grace of God, I am okay with it, and I am at peace about it…
.. and that is more valuable than anything.
Thanks for listening…
It’s that time of year again. The time that is apparently crucial for businesses to turn over as much product as possible so that they can stay financially viable for the following year. I’m not particularly cynical about the commercialisation of Christmas, I’ve grown up only knowing a commercial Christmas, so its part of the whole Christmas tradition. But this year, Christmas has had a different spin for me.
Unless we live with our head in a paper bag, we all know that the Christmas tradition has its’ origins 2000 years ago in a greeko-roman society where Jesus Christ was born. Any Judeo-Christian society today celebrates this, some a little more fanatical than others. This contrasts starkly against a Christmas I had in India 3 years ago where the day passed as little more than news item that evening observing the West’s obsession with this ‘festival’. Ironic given the nature of religious pilgrimages in India routinely number in the 100’s of millions.
The West’s obsession with this ‘festival’ however, has very little to do with it’s origins, and a lot to do with financial bottom line. It’s BIG, because it’s big money, not because a child was born in a manger heralding a new counter-institutional movement (that ironically was later institutionalised).
Commercialism aside, Christmas IS an event that is large on the calendar for us, and routinely revolves around family, the purchasing of gifts, BBQ’s, beaches, and eating way too much food.
This year Christmas has made me think differently.
When people have asked me what I want for Christmas this year (in an effort to buy a gift that is more than just a token gesture) I have been tempted to reply with ‘How about a cure for cancer?’. Given the fairly cynical nature of this response, I havent used it. But it has really hit home just how pretty much any of the items purchased for me will have a lifespan that is longer than my own…
Unless it’s food…
- This time next year, unless I’m extremely unfortunate, I should be celebrating Christmas….
- This time in 2 years, if I’m good at fighting, I should be celebrating Christmas….
- This time in 3 years, unless God Himself intervenes, I should be dead…..
How does THAT make me feel this Christmas???
It makes me feel great Happiness in the now, yet great Sadness at the future; It makes me realise that if material items can outlive me, then the living I have left is short.
Above all, this makes me realise how we totally sell out to the belief we need more stuff.
What we need, is more life.
What I need, is not to die…..
The prospect of limited life has made it a valuable commodity, and material goods a cheap add-on. But instead for most of us, it is the material goods that are the commodity and life that is taken for granted.
More Life is not just limited to a temporal measurement, More Life is also how we live it: it’s reaching out to those who suffer, despite the fact we also suffer; it’s making a difference in the lives around us; It’s building God’s Kingdom; it’s ironically giving up the priorities of your life for the priorities of someone else’s; it’s loving with no agenda;
…It’s knowing that even though I am dying, right now I’m still living…..
What you want for Christmas might be a playstation….
All I want for Christmas is to live…..
I’m currently going through a process at the moment of often saying “This time last year..” and then reflecting on what actually was going on at this time last year.
The one year milestone is not necessarily an achievement, but more a moment to stop and reflect on the somewhat unpredictable detour life has taken in such a short 12 months. Having said that, the recent news in my life means that I might actually begin to measure achievements in years, or months for that matter. Either way, The week beginning Sunday the 8th of November 2009, maps back to the week beginning on Sunday 9th of November 2008, a week where everything changed, or began to change, in a direction that cannot be considered for the better.
Sunday = The day where something ‘wasn’t quite right’. After a mammoth meal the night before, my stomach was up to, what at the time, seemed to be a fairly routine grumbling about the quantity of food I ate. I stopped eating, lest I aggravate the belly below, and somewhat disconcertingly, stopped bowel motions, the latter wasn’t intentional.
Tuesday = The day where 3 days of stomach pains began to intensify. Pains would come in waves anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes apart, lasting no longer than 30 -60 seconds long. The day culminated in a nice bout of vomiting in the evening. This was the trigger point for Hannah and I to head to the hospital. Medical alarm bells were beginning to ring in our head, and the fact that we were due to fly out of the country on Friday was also at the back of our minds.
Friday = after a few days of ‘conservative management’ which is medical speak for ‘have some Panadol and lets see what happens’, the pain was significantly worse. Repeat abdominal x-rays showed barn door signs for bowel obstruction. The Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine (OHCM) says under the heading ‘Bowel Obstruction’ – “Never let the sun go down on a bowel obstruction”. And so, as the OHCM says, we followed. Surgery was 3 1/2 hours long, and what might have been an atypical presentation of an appendicitis became a full-blown right-sided hemicolectomy.
Thursday = 6 days post op: We got the news that the tumour that had caused the obstruction was indeed an adenocarcinoma of T3N2M1 Histology. Almost as bad as it gets.
Friday (21st Nov) = 7 days post op: Incidentally my 28th birthday, I was discharged.
And so… in that short space of time, in the view of the majority of people, life took a turn for the worse.
I however, prefer to think about it differently. Life didn’t take a turn for the worse, it took a turn down an unexpected route. I am the first to put my hand up and say it certainly didn’t take a turn for the better, but I feel that to say it took a turn for the worse might be a little melodramatic!
There are two reason’s I say this. They are:
- Death is nothing to be feared (although arguably the form death might take could be feared). We all die, it’s an inescapable fact of life. Whether Muslim or Christian, atheist or Buddhist, Caucasian or Asian, we die. How we approach this fact (as with all things in life) will determine how we respond to it. By not fearing it, we empower life, which is the part that comes before death. Many people do not fear death for many reasons. For me, faith in Christ is an integral part of that reason, and it is through my faith that the ‘alive’ part of life becomes empowered.
- Life is actually at its most interesting when there are mountains to climb, challenges to approach, and valleys to be descended (and ascended). The previous year where medicine has been sidelined in my life is proof to this fact. I NEED something to fill my time, I need challenges in my life to overcome, I need to create meaning.
It’s this final point which is pivotal. Life by itself will no doubt, by default, fall into a repeating pattern of routine, which, for all intents and purposes, lacks meaning. Meaning in life is not stumbled upon, that’s an illusion sold to us by Hollywood. Meaning is created. We have the choice to create meaning in our life regardless of what our circumstances are.
I’m dying of cancer.
But I’m choosing to create meaning in that.
Christ enables me to create that meaning; on my own strength I would fail.
Again, the final point is pivotal.
So when I reflect on ‘This time last year’.. I reflect on not why, but how, how I can create meaning. This is why life has only re-routed, instead of taking a turn for the worse.
It’s an interesting route to say the least.
Thanks for Listening.
Given the set of circumstances I am in, I often find myself saying to myself, or to God for that matter, ‘It’s not fair!’. There are many reasons that go on inside my head why this isn’t fair. An example might be that there are criminals who live a life of crime who survive into their old age, and yet here am I, potentially dying at the age of 28 (soon to be 29). I thought I had a lot to offer the world. I thought that I was going to to be able to become a doctor, and use my skills as such in some of the poorest places in the world. I wanted to bring justice where there was none, I wanted to bring hope where there was oppression, I wanted to show the world that the way it is doesn’t mean it has to be that way, that WE can make a difference and bring about change. I wanted to do all these things with my life, to make sure that my legacy was one that improved the quality of life of others.
But now I am dying and these things will never be fulfilled….
And criminals rape, they murder, and they rob. War criminals commit genocide and human rights atrocities around the world, and they all get to live into their old age, often with no justice for their victims.
How is that fair?
…. But then I remind myself why it is completely fair.
Two MILLION people were killed by the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia; Children are still being born in SE Asia with deformities because of Agent Orange dropped by the US; 4000 children under the age of 5 die everyday from pneumonia; People in this country and around the world are killed daily by drunk drivers; a two year old toddler falls into a drain in west auckland and drowns; a 22 year old university graduate from otago is stabbed hundreds of times by her boyfriend; thousands of people EVERY DAY die from cancer around the world.
How am I any different from these people??… What makes me any more special that any of these people that die from injustice everyday?
We live in a broken world where crap is part of our daily routine. Very often in the West, we are immune from a lot of that crap, and we forget that it happens. And when it happens to us?… We cry foul….
When I remember my place in this world, which is amongst the broken, then I realise that it might FEEL unfair, but thats just me being selfish. Shit happens in this life and we just get all moody when it happens to ourselves instead of others.
Perhaps instead of dwelling on our own unfortunate set of circumstances, we would do better to be dwelling on those of our neighbours, our friends, our families. Perhaps we should be seeking to be the answer to THEIR prayers and THEIR needs, rather than wallowing in our own sense of self pity.
I’m pretty sure that is what Jesus would do….
In the process of all this, I found peace with the fact that I’m dying…… Interesting…
It’s amazing what a bit of perspective will do.
Thanks for listening.
On Friday, I attended the 2010 TI year induction session. It was a little weird, this time last year I attended the 2009 TI induction session, thinking that 2009 was going to be the last year of medical school. Its interesting how quickly things change your entire life. It was only 1 week after that session that I started to get a stomach ache, and only another week after that that I had surgery, and then another week again where histology results confirmed that it was cancer, with only a 40% survival at 5 years.
In the past, I have often reflected, usually around birthdays or the new year, where I was the year before, and where I might be 1 year in the future. Never, with any of my reflections, did I even come close to predicting what happened in 1 weeks time this time last year. To go from a fully functioning person, with a future ahead, plans of travel, dreams of medicine, kids, grand-kids, to fighting for my life with cancer. And then, 1 year on, to be told that cure is no longer the goal of any further treatment.
It makes you realise just how fragile life is, how just in a blink of an eye, everything changes. Most of us, of course, don’t think these things will ever happen to us. That is exactly how I thought 1 year ago, yet for reasons beyond my control, I am now contributing to keeping the average life expectancy from getting too high.
Of course all of this talk about how none of us know the future, and how we should seize the day, make the most of life, live life to the full, etc. etc. seems a little unhelpful, and a little too cliche for my liking. But these are the phrases often repeated when such circumstances as these are reflected on. I’m not convinced that I have wasted away my life, I don’t feel as though I have regrets, I don’t believe that my life could have been lived differently. I am actually quite content with what I have achieved and how my life has turned out.
Rather than regretting or lamenting the past, what I lament, is the loss of my future. I’m a person who needs something to achieve, something to look forward to, some direction or plan for where I am going to.
Cancer has stolen that from me…
And that guts me to the core…..
And so, I have decided, that if cancer is going to have the last word to say in my life, I’m not gonna wait around doing nothing while it slowly kills me. I’m going to hit my TI year next year, chemo in hand. I’m going to make my best effort to finish my TI year, graduate with the hardest earnt degree of my life…. or die trying.
The medschool has been incredibly gracious and will accommodate me and my likely adhoc attendance to the best they can.
Five years ago, God made it clear to me that medschool was where my future lay and it was He that set this path in motion. It’s hard to know what God is planning now, but I see no reason to let cancer be the reason I don’t fulfill this calling.
I will follow God’s calling to best of my ability…….. even if it kills me.
And clearly for me, these are not idle words.
Thanks for listening.