Death and Dying: Fuck You, Cancer
Looking Death in the Eye
Rick Fields, poet, writer, and editor-in-chief of Yoga Journal, was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in 1995 at the age of 53. Fields, a student of Tibetan Buddhism, and his partner, Marcia Cohen, were suddenly forced to deal pragmatically with such lofty issues as impermanence, suffering, and the disunity of body and spirit—questions that most of us dwell upon only hypothetically, if at all. “You're lucky, because it's good for your practice,” his teachers told him. Maybe so, Fields tells Tricycle editor-in-chief Helen Tworkov in this wide-ranging discussion of death and dying, but "this idea that dying is a wonderful experience is a sort of double-edged sword: It is, or can be, but most of us want to stay alive as long as possible. Certainly I do.”
What was your reaction when you were diagnosed with cancer?
My first reaction was 'all hands on deck' because this cancer had been misdiagnosed for over a year and had become very dangerous, so I had to do something pretty aggressive and drastic.
Are you interested in your prognosis?
No. My attitude is 'I'm going to live until I die.' Which is all anyone can do. I don't see the value of having someone say 'You have four months to live.' And I don't want to give that weight to any one person's opinion, whether it is seemingly an enlightened spiritual person or a super Ph.D. or M.D. Fortune-telling has never interested me.
How do you walk between acceptance of death and trying to stop or heal a so-called terminal illness?
Eventually all of us will die. Death is real, it comes without warning. And this body, this particular body, will be a corpse. Buddhism has always been very consistent about that. The first doctors told me the statistics for stage-four metastatic lung cancer, which is what I have, are not very good. Once I found that out, I told the doctors that I'm not interested in hearing about them. What good would it do me? I'm going to live until I die. Whether the doctor tells me I have four months to live or five years, I'm going to live until I die. And the doctor is going to live until he dies. He thinks he knows when I'm going to die but he doesn't even know when he's going to die. If I die fighting it, fine. I'm going to die sooner or later anyhow.
What does 'fighting it' mean?
There are different levels. It's more of a philosophical than a medical question: whether to emphasize quality of life or very aggressive treatment. My first decision with the oncologist was to fight this as aggressively as possible. The second was to do radiation and chemotherapy together, which is stronger. But the side effects are more serious. I said, 'Well, it seems that if I don't do something drastic the cancer is likely to kill me, so let's do both.' Both he and the radiologist advised me against doing it because they believed the side effects were not worth what might be a slight advantage. My Chinese-Jewish doctor who has been my adviser through this whole process thought it was worth doing. So I was in an odd situation where my so-called alternative practitioner was recommending pulling out all the stops of conventional medicine, and my conventional doctors were acting more like 'We don't know if it'll work.' They were being much more cautious. So that's one way that I mean fighting.
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