“Chemo’s dangerous. It can kill ya!” Jimmy exclaimed when he returned to the office after a harrowing experience in the hospital. With an aggressive regimen intended to cure his cancer, he developed a life-threatening infection and shock that required five days in the Special Care Unit, where he received multiple antibiotics, IV fluids, pressor drugs to stabilize his low blood pressure, oxygen, transfusions, and growth factor injections to stimulate the production of blood cells. Hearing the hushed tones of the conversations between the doctors and nurses in the SCU, he realized he was in trouble. “I coulda died,” he said, looking into my eyes. “Thank God I made it.”

Lying in a hospital bed connected to a myriad of tubes and catheters, Jimmy said he had “a lot of time to think. What else can you do? It’s taken this (cancer) to make me think about serious issues. There’s changes I should make in my life. Now. No question. Who knows how much time you have?”

Jimmy had to move back home with his mom after discharge. He added, “I watched what she did and said when she visited me in the hospital and at home after my release. What she believes in and how she acts makes sense to me now. I didn’t see it growing up or didn’t want to see it, especially in high school. Like the church thing she talks about. I should go with her again.. There’s gotta be something there.”

That day in the office was not another treatment day for Jimmy. After 10 days in the hospital, he needed more time to recuperate, although his blood counts had returned to acceptable levels. The PET scan was now nearly normal. Though relieved about the status of the cancer and the opportunity to recover for a few more days, he was ready to return for another round. “Let’s get it all,” he energetically blurted out. Jimmy left with another appointment for next week.

Cancer patients live with heightened awareness because they face the potentiality of death every day. They often pass over trivial and land on serious issues because the next day may be their last.

Yet are cancer patients or others with different serious illnesses the only ones at risk for a shortened survival? The healthy may have less time than they think. In the book of James in the New Testament, we are reminded about the fragility of life: “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4: 14). What lies beyond the step out of the shower or the next trip on I-95? Or after the normal EKG in the doctor’s office?

I never saw Jimmy again. His mom drove them home in her blue Toyota. Whether distracted or blinded by the brilliant sun that beautiful spring day, his mom crossed the double line and was hit head-on by an 18-wheeler. Both she and Jimmy died instantly. The truck driver, who walked away from the accident unscathed, claimed he had no time to avoid the collision.

Jimmy did not have any time to make the changes he considered during his 10 days in the hospital and seven days at home after discharge. Although he had a sense for the important caused by his experience with a life-threatening illness, there was still not enough time for Jimmy. Everyday life can be as dangerous and unpredictable for the healthy individual — and cancer patient in remission — as for the patient with active cancer. Jimmy did not need cancer to die.

In our quiet moments, all of us know there are personal or public issues to be rectified or relationships to be restored. We may not have the opportunity “to go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money” (James 4:13) as the Bible warns us. Rather, we should say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:15) and then proceed with short accounts in our actions and attitudes.

Live like today is the last day of your life. Life is dangerous. It can kill you.

 

Dr. Delvyn C. Case Jr. is a hematologist/oncologist, writer and playwright, and consultant to the Department of Pastoral Services at Maine Medical Center in Portland.