Grappling with the finality of an oncologist’s statement | Whale’s Tales

Perhaps my brain injected a bit of humor to cover the shock. But I felt the gut punch.

Ann and I were waiting in my oncologist’s office last week. She gave us the news we were desperate not to hear.

“The cancer will end your life,” the doctor said.

No qualifiers: no “may,” no “perhaps,” no “could.” The cancer will end my life.

Matter of fact. Succinct.

But oddly enough, at that moment, a line I’d read years ago in my Everyman’s edition of Boswell’s “The Life of Johnson” popped into my head.

“It was a small matter of a head,” Boswell penned of a man who’d been awaiting execution, “but it meant a great deal to him, poor fellow, for it was the only one he had.”

Perhaps my brain injected a bit of humor to cover the shock. But I felt the gut punch. Like that man’s head, this life is the only one I have.

As you may imagine, in the days since we got the news, my family and I have grappled with the finality of my oncologist’s statement. Personally, I have been slogging through the day’s work as if I were in a pit of quicksand.

But I’d more than half suspected the game was up two weeks ago when I looked at the surgeon who was to have performed the operation as she was telling us she had since decided against the procedure, and I saw only dark tidings in her eyes.

“Your case has become … complicated.”

My latest PET scan, she said, showed that the cancer had spread from one tidy tumor to four messy masses, making surgery at this point a whack-a-mole affair: get rid of one bastard here, another bastard pops up there.

And under the prospect of multiple slicings and dicings, the doctor said, I would have no insides left. As I’m sure you know, insides are important things to have, and if at all possible, it’s critical to keep most of them inside.

Acceptance no doubt will come in time. For now I am contending with a sensation of unreality.

I do not blame God. I am not angry at the universe. I believe this one’s mostly on me, the unhappy result of a lifetime of putting things off, of being too much in my head, of paying too little attention to what was happening below it.

It was within my power to be more diligent. I wasn’t. The result is that my heedlessness will make happen a thing I had hoped with everything in me would not. It will break my sweet wife’s loving heart, which had so busied itself in the last years planning the many things we would do together.

“Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground,” as James Taylor sang in “Fire and Rain.”

Death comes for us all. There are no exceptions. But I wanted more time with Ann. She deserved more time.

“It’s not fair, I just got you,” Ann sobbed the other night. She is right: it is not fair. I wish I could go back and fix the mistakes. But I can’t.

So, what now?

It’s down to chemotherapy to stretch my life out as long as possible. There is no telling how much time it will buy me.

One or two among the community of the faithful have told Ann: “He’s already healed, all he has to do is claim the Word of God.” I reject this as magical thinking. In the end, the death rate, even among the faithful, is still one per person.

Here is my message: do not do as I did. Your time is now. Do what you need to do. Because in the final backward glance, it’s not only about you. There are people who depend on you. Children who will need their moms and dads. Brothers and sisters and friends whom your absence will devastate. Don’t do it to them.

What remains is to make the most of the years that remain — to do good work, as ever in my great task master’s eye.

Robert Whale can be reached at