Wall illustrations depict stories of Taoism in Fung Ying Seen Koon in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Accepting cancer’s challenges, with a little help from Tao Te Ching

(RNS) About five months into brain cancer, I’m running into new limits. But they aren’t exactly what I expected. So I’m looking for some meta-advice about how I should react.

Glioblastoma, aka GBM, is a disease with a median survival of about 15 months. My current odds push my prognosis up to as much as 20 months. Maybe more, maybe less. Thinking about my path to the Egress became a psychological “new normal” pretty much the day after my brain surgery in December.

But physical challenges surely could have been worse for me at that point. The list of relatively common symptoms to this relatively uncommon cancer includes a variety of losses of basic mental skills and power. Seizures. Paralysis. Loss of the ability to speak. Or see. Or walk.

I’d had almost none of that then.

Still haven’t since my 62nd birthday in January. Which is also not uncommon for GBM. Many cases have people headed for the Egress on a fairly smooth path – until very near their end. I learned about that early when I researched the illness. I figured immediately I’d come up with my bucket list of what I’d want to do while I can. And I’ve chosen an interesting set of treatments that may push my survival up some.

However, I’ve run into some physical walls in the past few weeks. Boy, howdy, I’ve been tired. I’m not complaining about being weary after being up for a while. I’ve always liked naps. But I’ve had days where naps lasted a lot longer than awake time. And lack of appetite is making it hard for me to maintain weight and strength, as well.

So far, there’s no particular evidence that the tumor has started to come back yet. Odds are it’s a bit early for that. But my doc, an expert on this cancer, tells me that a high fatigue can be my new normal. Which means I’m looking for the medical equivalent of crutches, drugs that will boost my energy.

And I’m also trying to figure out what level of ambition makes any sense at all. What should I be aiming for? What will make me feel better or feel like I’m meeting a higher standard?

The last time I can recall running into such an unexpected personal wall was mostly psychological. And more than 40 long years ago. I was a college kid whose first-ever irredeemable romance had been squashed like a messy bug. (My fault, to be sure.)

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

My brain was damned near on hold. And one acquaintance gave me a copy of a spiritual book I’d never heard of: The Penguin Classic edition of Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.

The original was credited to an older contemporary of Confucius from about 2,400 years ago. The writing may actually be “only” 1,600 years old. The translation I got had been first published in 1963. Which seemed ancient to me in 1974.

Taoism (pronounced Dow-ism) has nothing much to do with romance but is a metaphilosophy about how to deal with all human problems, including governance. (Mr. Trump: This may be worth a read.) And I disagreed with plenty of it. But I liked what I took away as the broad structure:

The word “Tao” is generally translated as “the Way.” Reality is tied universally and maybe even supernaturally to a moral and ethical flow. If I tried to figure out how to ride generally with the flow – even like a surfboard on a tsunami – maybe I’d be able to get to places I wanted to go better than if I fought against the flow? Worth a try.

I won’t say Lao Tzu led me to a quick success, but he got me moving better than I had been for a while. And I’ve never lost my affection for the work. I’ve collected a series of translations and analyses over the years. But the first version I read remains my favorite.

What guidance might it offer to me now? I went looking for some quotes. Here’s the very start that hooked me forever:

“The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way; the name that can be named is not the constant name.”

Meaning that any attempt to be totally specific about the transcendent Way will leave some of it out. OK, then.

“It is because he does not contend that no one in the empire is in a position to contend with him.”

I truly remember that! Only competition leads to a loss. And each of us can choose whether or not to compete. I won’t lose simply because someone else thinks I’m losing. That’s worth me grabbing back onto.

“Now, to forsake compassion for courage, to forsake frugality for expansion, to forsake the rear for the lead, is sure to end in death.”

Yes. I’m mortal for sure. But a focus on what kind of ambition makes sense might get me a legacy that doesn’t simply end when I will.

And finally:

“In the pursuit of learning one knows more every day; in the pursuit of the way one does less every day. One does less and less until one does nothing at all, and when one does nothing at all there is nothing that is undone.”

So a deep breath. And a quiet thought. And even a nap. Or two. I will do some things as I can. Until there is nothing that is undone.

(Jeffrey Weiss writes the RNS column “My Way to the Egress”


  1. I find your columns interesting and compelling though if I were facing what you are facing my philosophical construct would spring from a different source. Without in any way making light of your condition, it is my understanding that many people who are initially rocked to their foundation by a potentially terminal illness often rally, in their minds at least, by the knowledge that in some sense they have substantial control in how they direct their egress because the prospect concentrates the mind. In other words, there is a kind of certainty that is missing from those who take life blithely, only to be taken out by a truck as they step off a sidewalk.

  2. Confucius say: Man who wander into street thinking why chicken on other side, find answer why chicken look both ways first.

    Edward, thanks for clearing that up for us. 😉

    For JW, if I were a writer and knew other writers I might start articles I had no intention of finishing. I would start a article with a person in mind who would finish it for me. I think that would produce an energy to start many articles. Looking forward reading the endings others had given them I think would produce a energy to see many articles completed. Trying to think of what it’s like to think of the undone. Thanks for letting us in.

  3. Great article. Nothing like death to put life in perspective.

    My friends and I use Modifinal for jet lag and those times we didn’t get enough sleep or we want to get a lot done. It is non-additive. It is normally prescribed for old people who sleep too much and for narcolepsy. A lot of health conscious people use it in this way; some even use it regularly. (I do not because as a life long yogi, I cannot imagine there isn’t some cost that I would not be willing to pay, but side effects seem practically nil.) Ask your doctor about it. It will definitely keep you awake!

    Also, one thing I would suggest for you. A loving kindness meditation. Here’s how I teach it. Start by imagining the time in your life you felt the most love. Relive that memory or memories. (This can be especially poignant). Then imagine love as a sparkling or glittering white light. Visualize it falling over yourself and people you know. Even strangers! This is such a powerful, wonderful experience, for the life of me, I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t do it.

    Finally, I am wishing you a meaningful and beautiful journey. You sound like a lovely person.

  4. A poor “translation.” What the passage actually says is that the learned “grow” by what they acquire each day; the wise grow by what they give up each day.

    The learned — scholars, mandarins, the intelligentsia, society’s elite — gain erudition, prestige, power.

    The wise (whom Lao Tzu always distinguishes from the learned) shed false knowledge (i.e. the number of angels that fit on the head of a pin), arrogance, self-centeredness, the “need” to control others.

    As a stage 3b cancer survivor, I offer you compassion and pray you enjoy the gift of faith. Discovering Lao Tzu and whatever comfort you find in Tao Te Ching is a blessing. May you heed his advice to meditate and thus come to know that your true Self is not the self that wails.

  5. That’s actually how I understand that translation, pretty much.

  6. The Zhuang Zhou is also an excellent book exploring similar themes, if you haven’t already read it.

  7. Facing my own personal health crises — i.e., chronic conditions that aren’t going to “heal” in this life — I find myself alternately resisting and bemoaning all that is being lost. Your column challenges me to shift perspective on these necessary losses to what remains. As I read once in a mystery novel, I’m now trying to make what music I can with what I have left. I’m at a different stage of the journey to the Egress, so thanks for giving a guidepost for the future Way.

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