Monday, April 10, 2017

Hell In Every Religion

If anyone wonders where I developed some public speaking skills, it's because I was a preacher briefly in a previous life (that's a long story). But I do have a degree in religion and have read the texts of all the biggest world religions (The Torah, New Testament, Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, Dao de Jing, the Analects of Confucius, the Book of Mormon etc). I've also studied the various rituals at sacred services of each one. I've never done it locally but when traveling out and about I've actually participated in basically every one of the major religious rituals like Mass at Notre Dame and and the Vatican, Yoga as part of worship in India, Salah in India etc). I've done this somewhere between the life philosophy of don't knock it till you try it; you don't have to try it, just don't knock if if you don't (if you think a guy who picks up hitchhikers, where this blog derives the name doesn't also allow fervent people who want to share their faith into my home, well you've read me wrong). But mostly because in the ways in which humanity finds the sacred and the devout I want to try to understand what has left us looking to and beyond the stars and deep within ourselves, a dance no one I've ever met has fully mastered. Someone who has traveled with me a few times who would argue that it's more respectful to observe than to participate if you're not a full believer once gave me a tongue in cheek hard time and said what are you doing? With a nod and wink, I responded with 'I'm just covering my bases man.' They responded smiling and said, 'no you're going to hell in every religion.'

This is a week that is a big deal in the religion I'm most closely associated with, something I say neither too loud in here or anywhere in my life mostly because I don't want to embarrass any person whose faith rhymes with mine with my inadequate representation (I presume any Deity can handle it). But it's been an interesting couple of weeks and as I have shared them with some people, a few have handled it with the only ways we often handle that which we can't help. Some do it with a good hug, with a stiff drink, with a conversation with an offer of prayer. I've never prayed to 'beat cancer,' something that somehow usually refers to surviving it so I join people in all but the last one and tell them they're on their own if they want to do that since I assume if Someone is running the universe I hope They have some clue as to what they are doing. 

There have been some things going wrong with the system in the last few months. Nothing dramatic by my book but then again I've walked out of ambulances, put off brain surgery to run a marathon so maybe I don't do medical stuff with enough flair. Last year I only had 3 cancer appointments (or 6 depending on how you measure it, tests then results in my book is a single appointment). I was hoping 2017 would go as well. This year something is draining the system and so we did the typical bloodwork plus some extra tests (not all results are in yet). I had to do a urine test which led to an ultrasound (Kiana was not amused at my pregnancy jokes). I'm on a waiting list to see if organs are affected/swollen by the medication I'm on and we're trying some steroids which I'm not a fan of. I'm on a waiting list for a few more tests once the full results of these are in. It's not likely that cancer is growing just being on drugs for 6 years, pushing the system the way I do, aging or perhaps the combination of it all has been tough (the only possibility that it could be a direct brain cancer effect according to the doctor was if the tumor was growing on a certain section and pushing on some part of the brain that I can't remember and couldn't spell if I did).

The tests actually started before I went to the Final Four. It was actually a couple of days after I had spoken to the premed students for the 5th year in a row. This year two different professors had invited me to encourage students to do the Lonhorn Run 5k/10k. The speeches went well though I forgot one joke in the first one and the professor said that since they had a competition between them that if he lost he was blaming it on my missing joke. 

Bloodwork has varied with results always having been in the normal range even if some things had shown to be on the acceptable low or high end. The last MRI also shows some millimeters of growth on the brain tumor but the one thing that has been absolutely consistent for 3 years is that my resting heart has been 42, the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything. If nothing else, I dare dream this means my heart has arrived and stayed in the right place. 

The results actually came moments before the game started and if anyone wonders why I got more steals, finally made a shot, dove for the ball a few times, it's because the results required more tests and intense physical approach is how I deal with medical stress (I may also be a bit competitive). It's also why I hugged some of the people that had gotten there with a little more conviction. But a guy who still confesses those things more here than to anyone in person, I only told one person on the trip and even my girlfriend it took me a few days to say it aloud... but believe it or not both of those things are progress for me. We'll see where the tests go but there were some other events between the bloodwork and the final results and the impending tests.

Elaine's father came to visit on the 1st weekend we were both home since we started living together.
Call that a coincidence but I call that being a good dad no matter how much he may have objected to being called sir or Mr. Chung. He's also a long distance runner and while he's been running marathons since the year Elaine was born, he just ran his fastest one and qualified for Boston for the 1st time last month. We started the weekend with a good meal together where when the check came there was a contest as to who could grab it first. I'll leave that question not answered here but let's just also add that it was an even score by the time the weekend ended. Actually that was part of my favorite time in the weekend that we actually did this whole conversation thing the entire meal. It may say something about the age of our souls in there that while they are both engineers, I was the first of the 3 to get a smart phone a little over 5 years ago, Elaine only got it a couple of years ago and her dad still doesn't have one. We were just chatting and liking each other in person. 

It was fun to have 3 runners together on a University Campus all doing the 10k. I was definitely hurting right from the start and I'd forgotten my iPod so my usual music distraction/focus wasn't there. While I still beat most of the university students, I was not the first non student to finish and I knew that about half way. I kept trying to find a kick but it wasn't quite coming but with about a quarter mile to go, a student who was wrapping up the 5k (both had the same finish) said hey you came to class, finish strong. That made sure that I did. The finish line got even more meaningful when a college girl came up and said she had told her mom about me and about the races I had done together with my parents and my daughter. She had just finished the 5k and was going back to finish with her mom. While I've had some wins and some relatively close times, I haven't hit a single PR since I turned 36 and wondered a few times if it was time to call these races and speaking bits a good memory but a part of the past if that's where my credibility lied. Moments like that with those students make me think it's not quite time yet to hang up the shoes. Elaine would come in second female over all and 1st non student. The fact that she has PR'ed in the last couple of races she's done with me I had blown off since she's 25. But her dad is still doing it in his 60's, I mean at 29... so yeah its definitely not time to quit.

But none of the 3 of us were sit around type of people and we joined an urban scavenger hunt that afternoon that benefitted Wonders and Worries, an organization that helped me and Kiana be able to talk about cancer and it's side effects far better than I had done on my own even if it took me much too long to get around to doing it. It was a 4 hour scavenger hunt but before we got the clues I didn't know if it was one where it was who got it done first or one where it was impossible to get it all done and who did the most; it was the latter. This is why I sometimes struggle with the concept of eternal life and frankly prefer a more limited life; I'm a fan of choice and life certainly echoes that there are limits to that. If there weren't, would we value things as much? If death and time had no barriers, I think for many, most of us, perhaps I'm just speaking for myself would lose the urgency. I will never be grateful for cancer or it's lessons--I base my life philosophy on learn from other people's mistakes, you don't have enough time to make them all on your own--but I do think an awareness of the limits of time that come with being clued into our own mortality instead of in denial of it, I think that's good for us. 

So we set out to do strategy, 3 Boston Qualifiers figuring out clues all over town with history, with fun, with pop culture. I loved her dad's spirit not shy of eating an all condiments sandwich, or cleaning a strangers car window or learning to dap in front of the Texas Capitol. Elaine was ready to serenade a stranger; I hugged one. We ran all over town and 4 hours later we were nowhere dear done with the possibilities in there but we had a ridiculously good time. (If you're wondering how to see it just look up hashtag #wvush71 on instagram and twitter to see our adventures. If you want confirmation of just how competitive I am, we got rear ended in the middle of the contest and I said to Elaine okay you handle uploading while I deal with trading information). The combination of legs, brains, creativity and willingness stacked up well enough so that we took 1st place in the Inaugural Wonders and Worried Scavenger Hunt! 

I don't know what will happen with upcoming medical appointments or the MRI in less than 2 months. I hope her dad liked our adventures as much as I did. In one of my religious studies classes everyone had to write an essay that if given full choice which religion's heaven they would rather go to and which hell they would go to if they weren't going in the right direction. There were many answers, some incredibly creative. I certainly am not trying to convince anyone that my views on the universe are the only option which can save anyone. But I do believe what someone said before the civil war, what MLK quoted and what President Obama said as he headed out of office that the arc the universe bends toward justice. I do think the universe in the end is just but I hope and believe it gets there by Grace. For me, for most (all?) of us grace is harder but more necessary on the receiving end. My favorite portrait of someone who gets to see heaven and hell and what they see in hell is an abundance of delicious and nutritous food at a table but everyone is starving because the only way to reach it is with giant spoons and no one has elbows that bend and they all look miserable. When the same person sees heaven, the circumstances are exactly the same except that the people are happy and well fed because they're kind enough to feed each other. I'm not sure what the after life holds or like Queen says, I even dare of living forever. But tonight, after I get Kiana gets home from school, seems like a good night to cook and share a meal together. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Unbustable

March Madness has a special place along my cancer journey. It was during selection Sunday in 2011 that I was recovering after brain surgery at Duke and if there's anywhere that college basketball has an impact it's with the Blue Devils. The excitement of hoping to repeat from the 2010 championship was there and for me it was a welcome distraction from the actual pain of cancer. There was a joy in watching people jump and shoot and dribble when I was struggling to walk for very long. Duke didn't repeat that year but without fail I have filled out at least one bracket with them every year since then, something that worked out well in 2015.

But last year Infiniti started a challenge where you could refill your brackets after every round and for every correct pick they would donate a dollar to the American Cancer Society. The games were in Houston and 14 of us got to be part of the two inaugural teams of Hardwood Heroes, designed for young adult cancer survivors. This year they moved to Phoenix and they chose 7 new local players and 7 of us were picked to return. For those of us returning, as one of the other survivors said we couldn't be more grateful to have this once in a lifetime opportunity--twice.

We arrived once again to work on drills, passing ones, shooting ones. There were short interviews and the photos to remember it all by. But all in all, it was what I see as the the meaning of life that kept coming out, the ability to connect not because of cancer but beyond it. It had disrupted our humanity but we were here to disrupt it back. There were stories of people who had gotten cancer as an infant with massive surgeries at a time they have no memory of because they were so young. Scars that had been huge as a child to where they were still visible but stretched. There were people who had lost the ability to have children of their own because cancer had come to them when they were children who weren't thinking far enough ahead of things like fertility preservation. There were 3 teammates who had lost a limb and it didn't stop them from going down the court, taking great shots, playing hard defense and in one of their cases Devon and I went diving to the floor for a ball... he beat me to it and won the possession.

There were teammates who had dealt with it more than once, reoccurrences, some too close each other and some years apart.. I've never been through that and as I listened to the stories it was tough to decide which one was easier to absorb. Some of us whose cancer was not fully removable who had to deal with it as a day to day aspect of life. The intensity that cancer had to deal with each of us showed on the court with no matter how far either team was ahead or behind, no one blinked on the intensity of their dribbling, passing, shooting, defense. We got to play two 12 minute halves and anyone watching saw the intensity that we had for life displayed up and down that court.

The theme for this year's fundraiser was Unbustable since you got to make new picks after every round. But like a March Madness bracket that doesn't mean you picked the wrong or right ones, it just means you got a round by round perspective. This seemed to echo many of the players life approach, cancer had made us rethink our picks. Sometimes that meant doubling down all the way to the end but often it made changing it due to unexpected upsets. There were people who had chosen to spend their careers in non profits for people with some of the issues that had come out of their cancer experiences, helping cancer organization and amputee organizations. There were others who were encouraged they had made the right choice and made it again.

What makes a bracket unbustable is not getting anything wrong... something that no one I know has ever completely mastered. What made my teammates unbustable is the ability to take the unexpected failure of something within our own systems, sometimes because of genetics or randomness and choose to reset, to take the unexpected and pick again with new options, with new information. It is perhaps fitting that we got to do it in Phoenix, a city with a name from a creature which rises it's own ashes. As people shared stories about what chemo, surgeries, radiation had left them without but the hope that got us through it, it was clear to me that we all rose up from those treatments and hospital beds with serious fortitude.

Infiniti got fans who were there for the games to take free throw shots and get money donated for
every one within 60 second. The highest person had made 16 and one of our own teammates, Lexi, made 13 within that time. Last year, Infiniti donated over $700k to the American Cancer Society through people's picks and they will do so again from the picks and these shots. There were of course formal thank you's from us to them and from the CBS broadcasters about this effort. But Infiniti makes cars that have safety features that save people's lives; undoubtedly they hear from many of those people but there are plenty who they never hear from. The good they do there will be echoed by what this donation will do. And there they have will hear from many people, myself included of how grateful we are for this chance of life. It's my sincere desire that the program can't go on forever because somewhere they were part of the road map that eliminated cancer altogether, that there will be somewhere in the future where cancer is so irrelevant because good donations led to proper research that helped cancer be part of all of humanity's collective memory, not just the Hardwood Heroes personal memories. Perhaps this game, that donation, those connections will extend to infinity and beyond.

We enjoyed watching the games each day but after both nights of spectatorship, some of us survivors also braved the desert heat to climb up mountains since none of us are built for sitting around. Out in Arizona, there is no way to completely escape the heat but we'd been through tougher or as June Cash might have put it, if you meet with darkness and strife, the sunny side we also may view. A local Livestrong leader was kind enough to join us and give us water for the way. There were places where each of us had to take it at different paces but we regularly waited for each other and certainly joined up at the peak. In a complete fortuitous coincide we had all worn our #unbustable shirts. As we took in the views from the top of camelback, it disproved the idea that it has to be lonely at the top.

Cancer messed with all of the Hardwood Heroes physical system individually. By extension it messed with our friends, families systems financially, mentally and emotionally. But we're still going; we're not anywhere near done. Those donations haven't even been formally given so the way we're busting cancer back nowhere near being finished. I dream when it's all said and done, somewhere it's actually cancer that's all said and done and that's for whom the road ends completely. But until that day, the spirit that Blue Ridge Sports, Infiniti and the American Cancer Society share, I hope that spirit continues. And if you watched the Hardwood Heroes on the court, cancer didn't end us. In fact when people thought we might have been busted, those shining moments on the court showed we were just getting started.