Practice Nine for Anything that Feels Impossibly Scary

Practice Nine: Why NOT me?

When I was first diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), my primary care physician said “You have cancer, but don’t worry about it.” I told him I didn’t ever think I would hear those two phrases in one sentence. He laughed, then sent me to the Head of the Hematology Department. The Department Head, a lovely guy who was really much too busy to deal with the likes of me, asked after a few years of semi-annual appointments, how I was dealing with my diagnosis. I said I mostly ignored it. He replied, “In your case, that is probably a good strategy.”

And so I ignored my cancer from about 2009 to 2015 when it was clear that I needed some sort of treatment for it. Two rounds of chemotherapy landed me in the hospital with a very low white blood cell count and flu-like symptoms that caused the hospital staff to put that yellow tape they put around crime scenes around my room because I was so vulnerable to infection. Nurses, doctors and my family members had to don hazmat suits to visit me. This was the first time I knew in an immediate way that I might die then, and more broadly, that I was going to die from cancer or something else.

I did get better, did end what was to have been a much longer course of chemotherapy (the treatment, it turned out, was much more dangerous than the condition itself), and went back to mostly ignoring my cancer. But not quite.

It has been my experience that once you know you’re going to die, really know it, you can’t, or don’t even want to, unknow it. I no longer blissfully ignored my colds and infections. I now paid attention to the signs of recurrence when I had not in the past. I had answered my own “”Why not me?” There was no reason.

Six years later, in 2021, another need for cancer treatment, a much easier pill once a day, promised better management of my white blood cell count. But first the medication caused a new condition — atrial fibrillation. The effects of this heart condition were much more noticeable and troublesome than the CLL, but, as close friends said, I still looked normal. Few would guess that I now took 13 pills a day to manage both conditions. I still walked several miles, four or more times a week. I was still the primary caregiver and wheelchair pusher to a husband, nine years my senior, who has significant mobility problems.

He does not think about or focus on his own death. He says he knows he is aging, and that his challenges in this regard are increasingly serious. But he is not a worrier, or even a dweller on any aspect of his or the world’s future. As Doris Day used to sing, “Whatever will be, will be. Que sera, sera.”

We have recently returned from a two week trip to Paris and London, including a river cruise on the Seine. We saw such beautiful sights as the Louvre, Notre Dame de Rouen, Giverny and London’s National Gallery, ate at Julia Child’s favorite restaurant in Rouen, heard two breathtaking organ recitals, and walked the D-Day beaches of Utah and Omaha. Well, I walked them. Mostly my husband sat peacefully with his own guide in these places.

We had our crises. One afternoon in the pouring rain after a West End matinee in London, we emerged onto streets jammed with traffic but evidently no cabs, walked slowly and painfully toward an underground station that seemed to have moved. We finally entered the dry station and changed trains twice to return to our hotel, sodden and tired, and late to meet our children for cocktails. I thought, that afternoon in the rain, that I couldn’t manage travel and my husband Murray anymore. His inability to meet a stressful situation with any kind of plan, and the resulting additional stress on me to figure out what both of us should do, was and is daunting.

Now that I’m home and rested, however, I feel differently. I want to do these somewhat difficult things with him for as long as I can, because they will not be available to me or him forever. We will both die sometime sooner rather than later. Why should we be exempt?



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Sara Orem

Sara Orem

Sara speaks about and facilitates workshops for older adults about vitality in the aging process . See more about Sara at