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Putting Life In Perspective: 5 Things Thinking I Had Cancer Taught Me

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As I sat in the waiting room at urgent care around 9:17 pm on a Wednesday in February, my fingers trembled and my heart raced uncontrollably.

The doctor was most certainly going to return with horrible news. “It appears there’s a large black mass on your right lung, Mr. Prater.

I’m going to be honest, it doesn’t look good.” The next few months would be a haze of chemotherapy, puking, losing my hair and, possibly, dying.

I thought of all the cigarettes I ever put to my mouth; all the times I hit the joint as it was passed around the fire. It was as if my smoking life was flashing before my eyes.

I had been smoking only when drinking on the weekends since August. I was also running 25 miles a week.

“What the f*ck was I thinking? How could I be so stupid? Why would anyone ever smoke anything?”

My mind kept asking these questions, over and over again, in a tone tinged with disdain and despair echoing around the voice in my head.

A few more minutes of waiting and the cause of death would have been a heart attack. The doctor -- I don’t remember her name -- entered smiling.

“Well, sweetheart, your lungs look great on the X-ray. And you’re certainly maintaining your running — they sound wonderful.”

For a second I was confused, “Wait, but – I have cancer,” I thought. “So… No cancer?” I asked.

“None that I can see. Come back if you start coughing up blood or have trouble breathing. Good luck.”

And, that was that. I left, almost embarrassed; I had been the last urgent care patient of the night and forced the entire staff to stay an extra 20 minutes.

The scary part was the accompanying pain in my back, though; this was the part that must be cancer. A week later, when the pain spread to both lungs, I went to my primary care doctor seeking a second opinion.

I had to have cancer — cancer they just missed on the X-ray.

“Sounds like an infection – pleuritis – of the lining around the lung,” she said, listening to me breathe deeply through her stethoscope. “It should clear up by itself, but I can give you some steroids to help reduce inflammation, which is causing the pain. Let’s get a CT scan just to be safe.”

A few days later she called me, “Your CT scan looks great. Your lungs are vibrant and healthy. Keep up the running. Call me if you cough up blood or have shortness of breath.”

The lung pain subsided a few weeks later with the assistance of prednisone, refraining from exercise and abstaining from alcohol.

I learned a lot in the little time I was convinced I had cancer; you’d be surprised by how much just thinking your life is ending can induce insight and valuable pondering. Here's what I learned:

1. Do not Google your symptoms.

This doesn’t have much to do with philosophical or moral reflection, but can probably save you a lot of worry and anxiety. Of course, no one told me this until after I Googled “lung pain.”

The initial results were “Lung Cancer: Signs and Symptoms,” “8 Signs You Have Lung Cancer” and “How to Tell You Have Lung Cancer.”

You can imagine my reaction — think panic attack shrouded in extreme regret. I repeat, do not Google your symptoms.

2. Your health is all you have.

Until your health goes, you think about it rarely. The second something happens that prevents us from functioning as we normally do, we are caught in a very disconcerting “I-can’t-do-what-I’m-normally-capable-of-doing-anymore” place.

I couldn’t exercise. Alcohol made my lung pain worse. Laughing caused terrible pain in my ribs.

I was, all of a sudden, lacking the health I possessed only weeks before. I became depressed, anxious and bitter I had to “suffer” so much.

3. Millennials are spoiled brats.

Yes, we are. I thought for a moment I was “suffering” because I couldn’t exercise and had to cut back on drinking. How stupid is that?

There are people dying of AIDS, which they were born with. There are people who are suffering the agony of undergoing cancer treatment. There are people who are so hungry they’d rather die, but they have no access to food or can’t afford it.

And I was worried about being unable to run.

The first-world blinds us and spoils us, and I’m sad it took thinking I was going to die to realize this. Let’s all take this moment to grow up and appreciate what we have.

4. Stop being sh*tty. Be nice.

We all do, say and think sh*tty things from time to time. I know many people who tend to slide toward the “all the time” end of that spectrum, but that is neither here nor there.

I remember the day before my X-ray, when I was the most convinced cancer was emulsifying my innards.

My tone of voice was lighter; I was more conscious of making those around me feel heard and accepted. Generally, I was just a better person. Why did it take thinking I was going to die to induce these actions? It doesn’t need to.

5. We’re all going to die, it’s just a matter of when.

Yeah, we all know this, but we let the days flow and fly by, and we get caught up in trivial things. We immerse ourselves in meaningless jobs and time-wasting Netflix binges because we don’t want to think about dying.

But, when you’re convinced you have cancer, you imagine your upcoming funeral, what people will say about you after you’re dead, how the world will carry on and people will keep living until they die, too. And repeat.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is all this “living” we do is so terribly unalive. We avoid confronting dark places in our hearts and minds because we’ll always have another day and another hour to do so.

We don’t talk to that pretty girl on the subway because she may have a boyfriend or will think we’re weird for just saying something.

We don’t do half the sh*t we should because we’re too damn scared to. And, that’s pretty stupid.

I in no way feel that thinking I had cancer is any substitute or could come close to having it.

I think, being a writer, it’s my job to put myself in other’s shoes, and to imagine the deep feelings and intricacies of thought people may experience in their unique situations.

And, maybe, that’s what I was doing; maybe my imagination got the best of me. But, hopefully, something halfway useful came of it, and we can all take away a semblance of value from my hypochondriacal tendencies.