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thoughts on mortality.
In early January, I was told I might have cancer. By mid-month, I was diagnosed. Yesterday, a brief surgery cured me.
I was simultaneously incredibly lucky and unlucky. It was melanoma — the most aggressive of skin cancers — but completely curable when caught early. My toll for The Reaper was a lump of flesh on my thigh, and then he was on his way, sparing me.
A melanoma diagnosis at 26 years old is exceedingly rare, even for someone with pale skin from California. What’s more, I’ve always worn sunscreen, and I’m aware of the signs of skin cancer. However, my melanoma wasn’t visibly weird, as is typically a telltale sign of malignancy. You probably have many moles that, to the human eye at least, look just like it did. It was for another more mundane reason that I had scheduled an appointment at the dermatologist, where they decided to perform a biopsy. This random sequence of events very well might have saved my life.
The period between “possible malignancy” and confirmed diagnosis was excruciating. I was living in a liminal world between benign tumor (as are all moles), and a more sinister prognosis requiring invasive surgeries and therapies, and that might still not save me. Life, however, had to go on as normal. I would stuff away my morbid fears, distracting myself with work and leisure, only to have it bubble up in the form of anxiety as I lay wide awake at night considering my future, or lack thereof.
I had often joked that I was invincible. This was, of course, cope — and in some way, an attempt at self-placebo. Death, disease, accident — simply being unlucky — was something that happened to other people. My twin brother, a mirror of my own mortality, was himself plagued with his own chronic conditions, and while he would be inflicted with Covid twice, I’ve yet to contract it. On a bleak night in a New York hotel room, a dark, twisted thought gripped me: ultimately, I would either attend his funeral, or he, mine. I wondered how soon this might be decided.
I wouldn’t consider myself a hypochondriac — after all, I don’t think it’s abnormal to be anxious about a cancer diagnosis, particularly given the trickles of information I had. Rather, I’m much more broadly unsettled with not understanding things that frighten me. My curiosity becomes all-consuming, and before long it’s 2am and I have a dozen browser tabs open. Is this the healthiest way to process uncertainty? Surely not, but I do find increasing comfort in becoming familiar with my foe.
A week later, I received a call from my doctor. It was 7pm — unlikely to be good news. I froze, an experience I had thought was only a movie trope, and before snapping back to my senses, my phone turned dark. My fate was now sealed within a 48 second voicemail; a nigh unbearable and paralyzing weight resting in my palm.
Before I could listen, I received a text message. It cited the scientific measurements and analysis of my biopsy, and, owing to my anxious studies, I understood that it was indeed serious, but was caught early and thus easily treatable. Though an unlucky outcome, I felt relieved.
I pity the doctor who must tell someone that they have cancer, and none are so unfortunate as those who must break this news to the young. His voice was serious in tone, but as the recording went on, his trepidation leaked through. He was clear in explaining about the process of diagnosis, but he seemed to stumble through the result itself. He had to repeat it twice; the second time weaker and abruptly shifting into the positive prognosis, riddled with lingering apprehension. By the end of the voicemail, I felt in greater spirits than he seemed to be.
I can only imagine the panic he regularly conjures, particularly for those previously ignorant of the disease; patients processing an immense amount of information very quickly, twisting their world upside down. I don’t believe making these painful calls ever becomes easier for him. Like a reflex, he seeks to pacify the patient immediately, but at apparent emotional cost. What a blessed and awful profession.
This event has changed me, stirring deeper contemplation of life, death, and uncertainty. When I think of these topics, I’m reminded of a particular passage from the Bhagavad Gita when the god Krishna is speaking to the warrior Arjuna:
Dronacharya, Bheeshma, Jayadratha, Karn, and other brave warriors have already been killed by Me. Therefore, slay them without being disturbed. Just fight and you will be victorious over your enemies in battle.
The enemies of Krishna were already dead, it just hadn’t happened yet. At first glance, this is a declaration of fatalism, but within the broader context of the tale, it becomes clear that their presence on the battlefield was by their own free will. By defying Krishna, they had chosen death — Arjuna simply the deliverer of fate.
There is an alien comfort in this deterministic view; that, at the end of the day, you are responsible for what happens to you. However, there remains an sinister level of randomness about it all. Some choices only breed significance in hindsight when it’s too late. Many unlikely, horrific things exist — so many, in fact, that one will almost surely occur to you.
How does one then find solace in the face of chaos? The Bhagavad Gita answers this question; death is inevitable, and that we should accept it as a part of life. Christianity echoes similar sentiments, emphasizing the eternal heaven that awaits the devout and good. And secular doctrine tells us to “follow our bliss” or “live dangerously”, and that we will die at the precisely right time in doing so.
In sum, we’re told the answer to the fragility of life is simply to get over it, often with a happy or karmic reward on the other side; telling us how to live and how we must die. Born through millennia of existential thought, philosophy separated the spiritual from the material, allowing us to imagine metaphysical immortality. Starting from the assumption that death is inevitable, this is the best we could hope for.
But, in recent years, I’ve begun to wonder if this might not be the case. That if only I could stave off the chaos for a couple of decades, death, too, would be another choice within my life. The splendor of the future is what makes mortal uncertainty particularly difficult to accept as inevitable. Those born today might not be already dead after all.
As I lay in bed with fresh sutures, a small piece of me removed, I feel like I’ve yet gained something. This was a cheap lesson; as far as cancer is concerned, melanoma is a very fortunate diagnosis. Many are far more unlucky, lives forever altered or cut short. In some way, I feel that I’ve glimpsed the true, entropic nature of our world, and that perhaps defiance of it is what makes us human. Few moments make you feel more alive than dodging death.
One day soon we might complete the quest of Gilgamesh; to fully excise the runaway chaos born within us. Until then, I live each day with a deeper respect for the fragility of myself and those around me. Though I was unlucky to get cancer so young, I was very lucky to stumble in to the doctor when I did.
Perhaps mindset is all there is to it.