Right after I was diagnosed with cancer, a friend of mine told me that she knew that I would defeat cancer because I was too arrogant to let this illness get the best out of me, that I would not admit weakness or defeat. She was right in many respects. However, arrogance is born out of inner insecurity. I don't think that arrogance has helped me tackle cancer successfully, rather it has been mental strength developed over decades of overcoming obstacles that has been key to my success, so far.
When confronted with a terminal illness, there is a very natural reaction to adopt a siege mentality, to radically alter one's habits, to obsess over the fears and uncertainties. That has not been my approach. I simply refuse to live in a bubble. For that reason, I have deliberately chosen to live life to the fullest, often disregarding medical advice. For instance, my oncologists have forbidden me from travelling on airplanes. Over the last year, I have routinely disregarded that advice and travelled to faraway places, like India, Senegal, Russia. I get immense satisfaction from travelling and I simply refuse to let cancer take that away from me.
The medical profession is understandably cautious when dealing with terminal illnesses. For people who confront cancer with a siege mentality, the medical profession's cautious approach works wonders because it reinforces what comes naturally to them. Fear can be a very powerful motivator. For instance, I recall a rather surreal conversation with an oncology nurse who was giving me detailed advice on how to manage at home after each chemotherapy cycle. She was very insistent that I should wear a scarf. She also gave me instructions on how to open the fridge and carefully handle its contents with gloves. She was very earnest, so I listened attentively, nodding in approval at everything that she was saying. At the end of her briefing, she gave me a thermometer, so that I could monitor my temperature, every hour. I thanked her for her advice, but I completely ignored it. I have not taken any precautions when opening the fridge or worn a scarf at home. The thermometer has remained unused.
The tendency to be cautious --even overly cautious-- works for many people with cancer or other serious illnesses. I'm certain that this caution is supported by exceptional cases where patients suffer horrific experiences by, say, drinking a cold drink after chemotherapy. Maybe it is my arrogance, but I simply don't think that these rare outcomes will occur to me. I'm convinced of the opposite, that I should lead life as normal and that in doing so I will defeat cancer. In some instances, I have made a deliberate choice to do what I am not supposed to be doing. Right after chemotherapy sessions, I have gone to the ballet, celebrated St Patrick's day (as one does), taken a trip to Paris (with my chemo bottle in tow), had a picnic with my friends. I have not sat at home wearing a scarf, drinking decaffeinated tea, taken my temperature at one hour intervals, or been afraid of the contents in my fridge. In my case, I have decided to lead a great life and to engage in activities that both give me pleasure and that help me forget about cancer. I derive enormous satisfaction from taking photographs and hanging out with my friends. Why be afraid of living? Recently I also started taking kung fu lessons. My oncologist was absolutely startled when I told him that I had gone on an intensive kung fu training camp in Spain. He looked at the nurse and told her that he had never seen a case like this, particularly given the fact that at the time I had just finished nine cycles of chemotherapy. I encouraged them to take up kung fu.
Some friends think that I make coping with cancer look easy. It certainly isn't. Just like other cancer patients, it requires monumental mental and physical strength for me to get through the day. However, having recently visited the Auschwitz concentration camp memorial, I realise that my daily struggles are insignificant compared to what others have suffered and, more importantly, survived. Ordinary people have the mental and physical strength to adapt to the worst of circumstances. I wish that faced with such cruel moments I would have the resilience to overcome such an ordeal. As much as I wish it, I'm not some Nietzschean übermensch. What distinguishes me from others, though, has been my approach to dealing with cancer, by taking calculated risks. I should stress that I have not been reckless with my health. I'm more careful with my diet; I even eat vegetables, now and then. I also listen to my body, if I see that I'm pushing myself too hard, I stop and take a breather. What encourages me to continue doing what I have been doing is that the medical results have been very positive. For instance, the first sentence in my latest oncology report reads: "Lawrence has had an excellent response to chemotherapy." To those who have not dealt with cancer, it may not seem like much. For those of us who struggle with this disease, it is the equivalent of getting a gold medal.