Alcoholism, Cancer & Living on Borrowed Time

A typical discussion that occurs with family or friends I have not seen in while is being asked about the status of my cancer diagnosis.  After reporting the latest on poking, prodding, and testing, I conclude with the same ambiguous prognosis that my oncologist gives me.

Recently I had this conversation with a couple of newer friends who were over for dinner.  Typically, in the same way I don’t want folks to feel uncomfortable drinking around me because I am a recovering alcoholic, I too don’t want folks feeling sorry for me because of my cancer diagnosis.  So, in the same way that we served wine for our dinner guests, when running down my cancer status, I said something like “I don’t mean to sound cavalier about this, but I feel that I have been on borrowed time for the past three decades and that I would have been dead long ago had I not quit drinking – so it is all good today.”  The husband responded that was the exact way he felt after being sent to Vietnam because he never expected to come back to the U.S. alive.  He considers his last nearly 50 years to also be a matter of living on borrowed time.  His comment hit me like a ton of bricks!  This was the first person I stated my truth to who responded with  basically ‘yeah, I get that.’

In fact, I suspect there are many variations to the type of life experiences that produce similar thoughts.  For me, these types of experiences bring to mind one of my favorite quotes:

Death is not just physical dying, but going to full depth, hitting the bottom, going the distance, beyond where I am in control, fully beyond where I am now . . . When you go into the depth and death, sometimes even the depths of your sin, you come out the other side – and the word for that is resurrection.

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond pp. xx-xxi, Josey-Bass

I recollect some 25 years ago a fellow student, then in her 50s, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  As a nontraditional college student at the time myself, we became friends.  I socialized with her family and became a bit of a confidant around her disease diagnosis.  She commented to me that being diagnosed with MS was the first bad thing that had ever happened in her life.  To that point, everything in her life had been picture perfect.  She could not cope with her diagnosis, opting instead to only rely on every newfangled medical treatment that might return her to the idyllic existence she had known.

I had a few years of sobriety by that point, really believed in the 12 Step Process and suggested she consider a support group to help deal with her diagnosis.  Her response was that there was no way she would associate with “those people” who also had the disease.  I was reasonably shocked.  I watched over the months and short years as she turned into an embittered victim filled with self-pity and loathing.

I am grateful today for the opportunity to surrender to that which I am powerless, have an attitude of gratitude, live one-day-at-a-time, and benefit from the many other lessons of the 12 Step Recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous.  I am very far from perfectly applying these lessons today, however, they are a constant source from which I can draw.  Cancer still sucks, but my 1984 resurrection in sobriety allowed me to begin an ascent from the depths of despair to which I had fallen.  I am truly blessed to apply these experiences in my life today.

A Thanksgiving in Recovery

Thanksgiving (today in the U.S.) takes on a special significance for me this year. My heightened awareness of life for the past three decades as a recovering alcoholic coupled with my recent cancer diagnosis has brought this Thanksgiving’s significance to the fore.

Since our retirement and move to New Orleans Emma and I have not settled on holiday “rituals” for ourselves.  This year we will have a full house of visitors – at least 18 – including friends and family here in New Orleans and from Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.

This past Tuesday I had another CAT Scan to determine the status of the cancer in my bones.  The good news is that the spread over the past couple of months is very modest.  The other, perhaps good news, is that some cancerous lesions may now be present in my soft tissue.  The good news of that spread is that through another poking and prodding process, it will be possible to retrieve some of the growth to assess and help determine the primary source of the cancer.  Such a procedure can provide a more targeted treatment rather than simply throwing chemo at the problem.

My oncologist continues to be amazed that I feel as well as I do.  Bone cancer is supposed to be very painful.  I noted to him that because I had felt so good, I hauled some bags of soil and mulch in the backyard, resulting in some back pain, but well worth it.  The colder weather in New Orleans – highs only in the 50s and 60s – has also caused a bit more aching in my legs and lower back.

Emma and I talked again about how good I feel, despite the expectations of the oncologist.  I believe some of this simply has to do with my firm conviction of living with an attitude of gratitude as I have posted about before.  I know that the guided imagery, regular exercise, and decent diet also make a difference.

In my 12-Step alcohol recovery program over the years, I have always tried to stay somewhere in the middle – not being the zealot who refused to read anything without the AA triangle on the back of the book but at the same time, listening and taking very seriously the experience, strength, and hope of those with a quality of life in recovery that I sought.

I am thankful to be able to draw on that experience in my life today.   On this Thanksgiving in 2017, I am grateful for the opportunity to live life fully, one-day-at-a-time with family and friends in my favorite place in the world.

Acceptance in Addiction & Cancer

“And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation — some fact of my life — unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.” p. 449 Alcoholics Anonymous

As a social/political activist since my freshman year in high school, when I first got sober, the concept of acceptance as articulated in the lines above was difficult for me to handle.  But the words of the Serenity Prayer brought a greater understanding to acceptance:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

I take this basically as a counter to my self-will run riot fueled by my righteous indignation, but with a call to action and responsibility to humanity, and through my experience, strength, and hope, to choose or not choose to act on any given point.

For the past few decades the serenity prayer application of acceptance has served me well in both addiction recovery and living a life aligned on a path toward true self.

With my cancer diagnosis, I have come to accept my increased pain, lack of appetite, and fatigue.  But at the same time, I have come appreciate that:

  • if I am diligent each day in doing the exercises as prescribed by my physical therapist, my level of pain is tremendously reduced.
  • if I do not load up on grease and empty carbs, my appetite is pretty close to normal
  • and if I live in harmony with the above two points, get a goods night sleep, and remember that regardless of cancer, I am 65 years old, my level of fatigue is kept in check.

In the same way that I long ago accepted that I was an alcoholic, today I accept that I have Stage 4 cancer.  When I first got sober, I filled with my head with the latest science on the disease concept of alcoholism, genetics, twin studies, and so forth.  Although interesting, none of that information has kept me sober or moving forward on a recovery path.  Today, I am considerably less interested in the science of my cancer diagnosis.  I accept the diagnosis and leave that to the oncology specialists – the thing I cannot change.  However, as in sobriety, I am taking a very active role in how I live my life today to maximize my quality and quantity of time left on this earth – the things I can change.  I am increasingly learning the difference between the two.

More Hope in Recovery

I heard the words “Robert is dying” spoken for the first time the other day.  The context was that we are all dying but that my death is accelerated by cancer.  Although the statement was made in a wholly appropriate manner and one of great concern, it struck me as odd.

I do not think of myself as dying.  In fact, and particularly since my cancer diagnosis, I consider myself to be more intentionally alive.  Today, the genesis of much of my thinking about life stems from getting sober in 1984.

While in the detox unit back then, I came to appreciate the dying process I lived for years through my addiction to alcohol.  I went through life completely anesthetized.  For example, instead of grieving when my maternal grandmother died, I got drunk.  I noted the highway to my job had several bridge abutments I could crash into should I decide to act on my suicidal fantasies.  I recall running down a road in an alcohol induced hallucination, firmly believing that if I stopped running, my brain would leave my head and I could not get it back.  And then, there was the regular isolation and alienation I experienced.  Then, I was truly dying.

But in the summer of 1984, there was a spark of hope and desire to try to live.  I laid in the detox ward only wanting to function as regular member of society.  I wanted to do things like go to work every day; remember going to bed at night and not be hungover in the morning; or have an honest conversation with someone where I was not trying to run a scam.

As I wrote previously, since then, my recovery path has not been linear – more like a spiral – but the overall trajectory is intentional, choosing to live, and having hope in the process.  That hope is the absolute bedrock of my existence today.

So am I dying today more than any other 65 year old mortal?  I think not.  As I have posted over the past few weeks, I am choosing to more intentionally live my time each day, whether that is riding my bike, cooking a pot of soup, digitizing maps, watching Netflix, writing an article, or sitting and relaxing on the back porch with my wife, Emma and dog, Grace.  I do not just exist, waiting to prove that I am mortal.

Today Emma and I talked about changing a spring couple thousand mile bike ride along the Great River Road for a few hundred miles of the Natchez Trace – a more realistic possibility.  But then I have another CAT scan scheduled and a visit to the oncologist on November 22nd that could result in chemotherapy and disrupt those best laid plans.

In my morning gratitude list, I often write “the opportunity to make choices for another day” – that to me is a big part of why I am living and not dying, today.

These are lessons I am blessed with from living one-day-at-a-time for many years through a 12 step recovery program.


Hope or Optimism in Recovery


We feel optimistic, or we feel pessimistic.  Now, hope is different in that it is based not on the ephemerality of feelings but on the firm ground of conviction.  I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless.  Hope is deeper and very, very close to unshakable. . . To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass . . . Hope is also nurtured by relationship, by community, whether that community is a literal one or one fashioned from the long memory of human striving . . . Despair turns us inwards.  Hope sends us into the arms of others.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, p. 122, The Book of Joy

We are reading The Book of Joy by The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in my weekly School for Contemplative Living meeting.   The above quote resonated with me in my recovery from alcoholism and recent cancer diagnosis.

In recovery, I consider myself a “glass is half-full” person who aspires to live into the solution and not the problem.  For the most part, that is true since I walked into a detox center a bunch of years ago.  But I realize that my outlook has evolved over the years.  Perhaps some 20 years ago, the concept of hope entered more into my daily life.  In my gratitude lists, hope is always included.  In liturgical worship, when the congregation is invited to speak their gratitudes my list is “life, my spouse, and hope” and quite consistently.

The Archbishop’s quote solidifies in my mind what hope is in my sobriety.  After a time in recovery, I came to know and have faith that with the 12-Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, I could remain sober.  I know that today to the marrow of my bones.  I have had no desire to use alcohol or drugs in over three decades.  Today, not drinking or drugging is the easy part of recovery.

Hope comes through living life on life’s terms or “practicing these principles in all our affairs” as noted in the 12th Step.  For me, that road in sobriety has never been a linear path, but I do hope that my overall direction will continue forward.

My recent cancer diagnosis brings another dimension to the understanding of hope.  Although I certainly do hope that my cancer will not progress, my faith is that if I do the next indicated step, use the many tools at my disposal, I will continue to live fully and take advantage of the opportunity to make choices every day in how I choose to live.  That is my hope today.  My time as a recovering alcoholic has shown me that in community I can have that faith and not wallow alone in despair.

I am blessed and life is good.