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Illustration on Times site: "We would tell you if we could"

Illustration by Tucker Nichols on the Times site

Here’s a new “must read” for people with a grim prognosis, submitted by Twitter friend @Scanman (Vijay Sadasivam), from the Tamil region of India: How Long Have I Got Left?, by Stanford neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi.

Seven years ago that was my situation. This was the week that a biopsy confirmed that the blobs in my lungs were metastasized kidney cancer, and what I read was “bleak,” “grim,” and lovely words like that. It’s the kind of experience you don’t forget.

This compelling essay in the New York Times Sunday Review recounts all the things newly diagnosed patients go through, and the doctor’s side of it – how to manage the relationship, and in particular how he and his oncologist interacted. One vital takeaway for me:

  • We all want certainty
  • There is no certainty.

Early in my illness my sister who’d worked in the AIDS epidemic taught me that there’s no one way to deal with it. Different people have different needs. One of your many tasks is to learn how you (singular and plural) will deal with it.

These lines in particular stick with me, from the library of advice he often gives patients:

  • “illness can drive a family apart or bring it together — be aware of each other’s needs and find extra support.”
  • “five-year survival curves are at least five years out of date.”

In a sense, the patient and family and clinician in this soup are walking a cliffside trail in the dark. For me the corker is a line he quotes from Samuel Beckett:

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”