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Senior scene

May 28, 2011

From the Office: Life's scares are starting to lose their edge

As I looked down at the laptop screen, the doctor's voice belied her sense of triumph as she pointed out that the bright spots on the CT scan of my chest cavity indicated that it was probable that I had lymphoma.

She explained that most likely I'd need only to go through a course of chemotherapy or two and if the cancer had not metastasized, my prospects would be good. I, being the type of person who is slow to comprehend the implications of events of this nature, had no strong reaction. I left that to my wife.

It had been over three weeks since I had become sick and up to this point, the doctors were having a hard time getting to the bottom of it all. Just a few days before, I'd yielded 24 vials of blood to be tested for everything from malaria to Cat Scratch Fever.

They were stumped until viewing the results of the CT scan, and I could thoroughly understand why my doctor was having a hard time concealing her excitement about them having been able to conclude that lymphoma was the likely source of my problems. The one thing that didn't gel was that I was starting to feel better.

The following week I went in for a biopsy. This involved the surgeon making an incision at the base of my throat and snaking in a scope around my lungs and whatever else was in the way and removing tissue.

The following week my wife received a call from the surgeon, who explained that the biopsy appeared to be inconclusive but she would wait for an official determination from the lab at the Mayo Clinic, which also received a tissue sample before she could make her determination. A couple of days later the Mayo sample also came back inconclusive.

Not willing to leave anything to chance, my medical team ordered up a PET scan. The PET scan showed nothing at all to be alarmed about … and now I'm back to square one.

I'm not complaining, mind you, cancer is a scary thing. I lost my father and several close friends and relatives to cancer. I've seen how it has taken over their lives … all the worry, the doctors' visits, the tests, the radiation and chemotherapy treatments, the pain and discomfort. Disease in general will catch up with most of us as we age. I was lucky this time … just a little worse for the wear.

I feel I was fortunate for another reason as well. I've had scares like this in the past and have spent more than one sleepless night pondering everything from the prospect of experiencing unbearable suffering to whether I've done anything positive on this plane that will have significance to others.

I'm sure that most people have these scares and most people torment themselves with similar thoughts.

This is what we do as the one species on this planet that comprehends its own mortality.

What's interesting to me though, is that this most recent scare failed to have the edge that my prior bouts with the mortality issue have. Maybe it's because I've played out most of my anxieties in the past … that I have little new to add to the process. Maybe it was all the prayers and good wishes from so many friends and acquaintances … maybe it's related to my belief that every challenge that we face is just part of the "universal self improvement plan" that we sign up for when we are born into this world. Yes, I think that most of us realize from experience that real growth is more likely to be born from pain than comfort … from being on edge than being complacent.

Maybe this is one of the pearls that we discover with aging. After so many years of battling with anxiety, we make a conscious decision to allow this, along with an assortment of other self-indulgences, to take a back seat. We begin to understand the beauty of experiencing the moment at hand, unfazed by those things that have tended to scare us. We begin to push forward lightly, cherishing those "smell the roses" moments and putting our challenges into their proper place. There are those who claim that old age isn't a walk in the park. I would counter that a walk in the park is just what is needed to counter the trials of growing older

Oh yes, I have little doubt that there will be scary moments awaiting me in the future. Life has a way of humbling us after we make our declarations.

I'm pretty confident though that if I remain mindful of pearls such as this, that solace is only the smell of a rose away.

Tom Briggs is executive director of the Delaware County Office for the Aging. 'Senior Scene' columns can be found at

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