Cherishing life

The gift of time: Reflecting on caring for patients who have cancer

Stephanie Lee, DO, MS, shares a thought-provoking conversation that made her think differently about life, time and the present moment.

Editor’s note: The patient’s name in this essay has been changed to preserve her privacy.

In a four-walled enclosed room sat a woman—English teacher, poet, with a red jacket and scarf. She looked at me with cautious eyes, following my footsteps as I inched closer to her on a stool. Pleasant in her cadence in greeting me, she awaits my words because she knows why she is here.

I glance into her eyes, unsure of where she is emotionally. “Mrs. Matthews, it looks like your cancer came back. I’m so sorry,” I said.

Mrs. Matthews looks past me, across the periphery of my right eye into the endless white wall. “I’m an English teacher and I love poetry,” she softly speaks as she switches topics. She opens her book in the middle as her bookmark falls to the ground.

Our conversation explores her life, children and long walks in the park.

“Sometimes, life takes twists and turns, and you don’t always know where you’ll end up,” I told her. “It’s a beautiful thing that you’ve taught and nurtured many generations of children.”

She cried into her tissue and looked at me past her foggy glasses. Whispering, she said “I feel like I’m being given a life three months at a time. I have to do labs every three months, and if labs come back normal, then I feel relieved. But right now, I don’t even know if I have another three months.”

Thinking differently about time

Death is like a distant dream. We know of it, we’ve contemplated it and we’ve read about it. But when death comes knocking on our door, most of us feel unprepared.

The gift of time is rare. When we are given little time, the drops of seconds we’re alive are what we cherish. In someone who has had cancer, learning that it has returned sends them back to the present moment as they are strongly reminded of the preciousness and brevity of life.

After the above conversation took place, I reflected on what a life would look like if it was lived just three months at a time. I imagine that each moment in time becomes more valuable and holds greater meaning and nostalgia. I imagine two loved ones being pulled apart at a country’s border. You believe you are in control, until you are not. Life humbles you.

I also thought about what time looks like for patients with dementia. In each moment, a memory is recycled and dissipated into the ether until the day it may be grasped again, if that happens. In the lives of these folks, a past and future may not exist on a linear plane.

Still, what patients with cancer and those with dementia have in common is an invitation to the present moment. However, for one, it is often a conscious choice, while the other spirals into it.

Toward the end of our conversation, I recalled a distant surrender. As she tearfully recalled her favorite memories, Mrs. Matthews sighed. As the crevices around her eyes softened, her lips parted as she gazed up above.

“Maybe everything happens for a reason,” she suggests.

Yes, maybe it does, I thought to myself.

She looked into her palms but didn’t seem to really see what she was looking at. “You don’t really know what you have until it’s taken from you, do you?” she asks.

Cherishing every moment

Sometimes you are told you have three months to live. Other times, you may be blessed with another three months if life allows it, and so on. In all cases, time is precious and cannot be relived. The lifespan of different species varies—one month can be a lifetime for some, and feel like years for another.

A life lived without regret is one that is lived cherishing each moment: feeling the warmth of your teacup in your hands, watching your children play in the yard, actively observing your surroundings when you take walks. In a previous article, I shared strategies for living intentionally and savoring the little joys of life.

Yes, living in the moment is more easily said than done, given the speed, flow and pressure of each day. Yet, one day when death knocks at your door, you must answer—and suddenly many of the things that you once thought were so important no longer seem as important in those last few moments. The gift of time is one to treasure—these moments create meaning and depth in your life.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

How I survived losing my spouse to cancer in medical school

DO surgical oncologist specializes in caring for patients who have breast cancer

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