This is a hard post to write because I’m lying to myself when I say I’m not superstitious. Apparently I am quite superstitious; otherwise I wouldn’t even have bothered thinking twice about the subject of this post.
In the Fall of 2008 I was working at a software startup. I was about as happy as anyone could be during the challenging experience that is a software startup. I started having discomfort while sitting at my desk at work. I figured it was some odd combination of my desk ergonomics, my work habits, and possibly even my advancing age — I’d just turned 39. I thought it was lower back pain (probably because I’ve suffered back pain since college), except it wasn’t exactly in my back; it was somewhere down there, but hard to localize.
I lived with the pain for a few months. In January 2009 I left the startup. There were several reasons I left, but one I didn’t properly vocalize at the time was that it hurt when I wrote code. The pain undoubtedly colored the final few months of my time at the startup, but it never rose to the level of a conscious thought. (Remember, until then I was young and therefore immortal; it was inconceivable that there were any physiological problems with me.)
Obviously, quitting one’s perfectly good job during a recession is stressful, and I did feel my share of stress at being unemployed. But I still didn’t expect what happened next. One night in January 2009, I bolted awake, covered in sweat, with a single crystal-clear thought going through my head: I would be dead in one year. I’ve never had a mystical experience in my life, nor have I ever demonstrated mystical powers, so I was utterly shocked that my mind would go through a thought process like this.
I did my best to ignore the experience, though it haunted me constantly. And, of course, in May I discovered that the pain was cancer. The prediction hadn’t yet come true, but it did a great job of demonstrating steady progress toward becoming true.
Since then I’ve been fighting several fronts. First, being objective: doing my best to act like a Renaissance Man who understands all that medical science knows about my disease. Second, being human: letting my normal emotions run their course as I experience fear, regret, humiliation, and everything else that comes with diagnosis of a scary disease and the consequent treatment.
But the third front has been most challenging: grappling with my mind’s deep-seated, superstitious belief that I’ll be dead in about three months. This belief justifies every terrible chain of thoughts I can muster. Currently, the way I think I’ll die is pretty simple: my chemotherapy succeeds, but the cancer has already metastasized to my brain (beyond the reach of chemotherapy drugs). In late November or so I’ll get a headache, and I’ll be gone by Christmas.
I’m almost making myself angry as I write this. Am I superstitious or not? Do I really believe that I foresaw my own death? Why am I wasting my time, and your time, writing about this?
Part of the reason is pure voodoo. Yes, I believe it, and it’s making me frantic because the time is approaching. I admit it.
But part of the reason is that I want to talk it out. I think I can explain this away. Here goes. This is the truth.
My tumor began growing in the Fall of 2008. That’s consistent with my symptoms, and with my surgeon’s estimate once he got the tumor out. I experienced classic “heaviness” that made it so uncomfortable to sit at my desk. My brain was accustomed to interpreting these feelings as back pain, so that’s what it did.
By January, though, my subconscious knew something else was wrong. This wasn’t back pain, and even my conscious mind was starting to suspect it. Between my conscious and subconscious states of mind, my brain came up with a way to alert me of the problem: the death vision. I reacted the only way a thirtysomething immortal would: I began exercising regularly, I set and stuck to a weight-loss goal, and I began making healthier eating choices. I also wrote a computer program to track various metrics about my body in the hopes of identifying patterns about my health.
I regret that it still took me four more months to find the lump. But it’s possible that without the death vision, I’d have ignored the symptoms even longer. Given how aggressive pure embryonal carcinoma is, my original tumor would have easily metastasized to my lungs and brain by January, and yes, I probably would have died.
So the death vision was real. It was not superstition. It was my body’s way of alerting me to a real health problem. It served its purpose. It got me into treatment early enough to be cured. Now that I talk this through, I understand better what it was telling me: if I didn’t get myself into treatment soon, I would be dead in a year. That was completely true. And I did get myself into treatment. I had surgery three days after discovery of the tumor. I went on surveillance, and we caught the recurrence quickly. We responded with state-of-the-art chemotherapy. In November I’ll get back scan results confirming the recurrence is gone. Like any sane person, I’ll be nervous awaiting test results over the coming years, but I’ll always be relieved when they come back normal.
Now that I’ve reached the end of this post, I’m re-learning what Terminator 2 taught us back in 1991. There is no fate. We control our own destinies. I’ve been freaking out about this vision that I (understandably) interpreted as a prediction of the future. But it wasn’t a prediction; it was just a warning — a deadly accurate warning that I fortunately heeded. I will still celebrate on February 1, 2010, and I will never take it for granted that I’ll live to see tomorrow. But for the first time in ten months, I can say to myself with a clear mind that I have as good a shot as anyone else of making it.