'Not Cancer' Offers 'Near-Life Experience' - So, Now What?

'I don't have cancer but I want to live like I do.'

Posted Mar 16, 2014

A friend's recent reaction to that awful but interesting medical purgatory - the time we've all spent waiting for test results - got me thinking about the amnesia we tend to get after the not-cancer news buzz fades.

My friend was kind and brave enough to talk about her feelings while floating in the limbo of Waiting.

I wanted to explore what it's like to wait for results because everybody of a certain age goes through it. Everybody waits for news about their own life or for the life of someone they love. It's part of the deal you sign onto as a human being. First you find something or sense something, a lump, a difference in the size or shape of something, an odd pain, a weird bloated feeling. Whatever it is, or isn't, you must wait.

Turns out my friend didn't wait long. She was supposed to get the call Monday, which meant she would have to wait through the weekend. Turns out she got the 'all clear, not cancer' call Friday.

I asked her last week if she was going to do anything different over the weekend, if the Waiting was having an impact on not only the choices she was making in her head but in her life as well. She said absolutely, that she wouldn't "do an ounce" of work and the family would do something fun. And she said she wanted to "be present, pay attention," to everyone she loves. "Being distracted by wondering if you have cancer makes you way less distracted, somehow," she noticed.

'The waiting made me my better self'

So on Friday morning when she got the 'all clear' call from the doctor, she had a full three days where she thought she'd be waiting but wasn't.

"I know this sounds nuts," she confided, "but I was the tiniest bit disappointed. Not that I didn't have cancer, obviously, but that I wasn't going to get the chance to keep waiting through the weekend. I had sort of prepared myself for it and was really going with it. I feel like I would have been a better mother, wife, person, if I was still waiting. Do you know what I mean? The waiting made me my better self. I was doing the cliché of living a little deeper, more present. I felt, and I know how this sounds, but I felt more alive."

She described having a "post-waiting buzz" that she hoped wouldn't go away. "I'd like to hang onto this. I'm not naturally a grateful person. I go through everything too quickly. I'm distracted blah blah blah. All the usual stuff. I don't treasure what I ought to," she was saying, more to herself than to me, I suspect. "I'd like to hold onto something from this experience. It's not like a near-death experience. It's more of a near-life experience."

Holding on to a 'near-life experience'

I like that idea, of having a 'near-life experience' that puts what's important into sharper focus. You get the chance to live (cliché alert!) in the moment, with more mindfulness, being more present, feeling gratitude, counting your blessings, or your chickens or whatever you treasure.

So that's my wish for us all. I wish we could all create our own Jedi mind trick where we have "a scare," and have to wait for results and feel that urgent gratitude and clarity my friend found and then hang onto it for dear life.

For dear life, indeed.

About the Author

Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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