The Most Important Lesson I Learned From My Patients – To Live Like I’m Dying

By December 8, 2009 Uncategorized

Cancer is expected to outnumber heart disease by 2012.  It is rare to encounter someone who has not been touched by cancer whether through their loved ones, relatives, friends or through media.  Part of the reason for the rise in this number is the fact that it is now more easily diagnosed because of improvements in medical technology.  In the past, patients may just die of an unknown or mysterious illness.  Other reasons include our environment and our lifestyle.  We consume so much processed foods that we almost never eat what nature has given us in its original form.  Most of what we eat has gone through machines that efficiently remove all the goodness of natural food.

When I was studying to become a doctor, we often thought of patients having cancer when they were already in their 50’s or older.  Patients in their 20’s or 30’s rarely developed cancer, if at all.  These patients become subjects of our major conferences because of their rarity.  Nowadays, we have cancer patients in all age groups.

Cancer scares everybody and spares no one.  Much as we doctors would like to think that we can be spared, we are just like everybody else.  If the general public feels afraid, so are we.  If patients do not like to undergo treatment, so do we.

There have been many occasions when I had cancer patients who are of the same age as I am.  These encounters have made me wonder “If this young patient can have cancer, then I can have it too.  If they had it now, what guarantee do I have that I will not have it soon?  Can I bargain that if ever I will be stricken with cancer, that I please get it when I have already lived a full life?”  These thoughts grew louder and louder everytime I had a new patient, especially if the patient were nearly as old as I am.

I became paranoid.  I tried being nice, doing good deeds, pretending to be a better person.  I tried to relax, not be a type A person anymore.  I said that I will get rid of anger, sleep enough, exercise more, eat more healthfully.  I tried to shoo away the thoughts that I can get cancer and told myself that I have to think positively.  But as my patients grew in number, the more glaring it became to me that even if one adopts a healthy lifestyle (not that we should abandon this) or live properly or follow all the health gurus, I still cannot have the CERTAINTY that I wanted.  I realized that I wanted ASSURANCE that I still have a lot of time.  I wanted a GUARANTEE that I will live up to a golden age.  I was living on an illusion of invincibility. I didn’t know where all these were coming from.  Perhaps it’s human nature.

A Professor in the US by the name of Randy Pausch delivered “The Last Lecture”.  He was a professor at Carnegie Melon University and he had advanced stage pancreatic cancer.  I was brought to tears when I heard his lecture on the Oprah show.  WOW! AMAZING! AWESOME!  I said to myself “This is the spirit”.  I raved about him to all my patients and told them to watch him on youtube.  I was clinging on this person to possibly belie what I already know.  I wanted him to prove to me that science is wrong.  I wanted him to give me and millions of people to give me hope.  I thought to myself that perhaps if I adapted his attitude, I probably might get exempted.  However, as is expected of patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, he also died subsequently.  I was disheartened.

Then the late President Cory Aquino passed away.  She had many of the qualities I admire and that all of us strive to achieve.  But when she died, I realized that no one was indeed exempted.

I realized that what I wanted were CONTROL, CERTAINTY, ASSURANCE, GUARANTEE.  All of these things are illusions.  However, many of us dwell and spend so much time lingering in these fantasies.  There is a phenomenon out there that we could not explain but we must learn to embrace to live peacefully.  It was then that I was able to achieve my peace through SURRENDER.


I saw patients who allowed themselves to be defeated.  There are patients who, even upon knowing that they have a very small amount of time left, would still continue doing nothing, just staying home, watching tv, not reflecting on what they still want to do and start doing those things.  I’ve seen patients who chose to dwell on their anxieties, rationalize that they are stricken with a terrible disease and miss the opportunity to savor time with their loved ones.  There are patients who allow themselves to be paralyzed by fear, spend time worrying instead of making memories with their loved ones.

I reflected on these different possibilities.  This made me realize that surrender is the best option.  SURRENDER is the key to leaving a meaningful life.  The truth of the matter is that I will die.  This is the only thing which is certain.  When and how is totally beyond me.  I cannot control this and neither can I bargain for this.  I have no other option but to live each day like it were my last.  Then I heard a song by Kris Allen and it clinched the decision that this is how I want to live my life “Live Like I’m Dying”

How would you?

Denky Dela Rosa

About Denky Dela Rosa

I am a Doctor of Medicine. My specialty is Internal Medicine (Doctor for adults) with subspecialty in Medical Oncology (Cancer). I am also a Certified Holistic Health Coach graduating from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, New York City

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