As a seventy-something myself, I'm used to the fact that the body from time to time I get the bummer. It is like owning a car loaded with years and kilometers. You have to take it to the garage more often than before and when it comes time to pass the MOT you are prepared to be forced to check this or change that.
Of course, even if you are fond of the thing and are willing to forgive its failures, you still expect that at some point it will no longer be worth repairing and will have to be taken to the scrap yard while you get a new vehicle, perhaps one of those electric ones that drive themselves.
However, alas, it does not seem possible to perform an analogous maneuver with your own body: you are chained to it much more tightly than to your mechanical mount. Therefore, if the disorder cannot be cured and there is no possibility of transplantation, you had better put your affairs in order and make peace with Him above.
Like most mortals, I am quite apprehensive. However, as I have suffered from intestinal problems all my life, I know how to cope with our daily evil and I don't give much importance to dizziness, colic and various aches and pains.
I thought I was going to get rid of the big one, but a routine check-up detected something that the doctor on duty prudently assessed as a "small lesion". In reality, there were two suspicious ones and after the corresponding biopsy it turned out that only the one with the most inoffensive appearance deserved the dreaded name.
I have been told that, all in all, the prognosis is favorable and the surgical solution will surely be radical. So, here I am, waiting to go through the ordeal: the appointment is for ten days from now. I thought I should not miss the opportunity, now that I can see the wolf's ears for the first time.
It may be professional deformation, but the occasion is a bald one, to be spiced up with the corresponding anthropological-philosophical meditation.
There are two aspects to contemplate: first, how I am experiencing the matter on my own without giving three quarters to the town crier. Second, how that intimate experience is disturbed by the interaction with the others (physicians, close and less close family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances).
Pilar, a colleague in our department, was diagnosed with breast cancer at a very young age. With enormous courage she overcame the experience, managed to become a university professor, got married, became a mother and lived a full life until a second tumor, this time a lung tumor, killed her. I was discussing her guts with my compadre Javier, and he told me: "I would be incapable. The day I am diagnosed with something similar, I will give myself up without resistance..." A damned covid took him away, against which he fought to the end with all the courage and bravery he boasted of his absence.
Both Pilar, Javier and I are (or were) philosophers and Christians. Double motive to face these challenges "as God commands".
So, now that my turn has come (even if it is a small one, as I will comment later), it seems to be the right time to show that I have learned something from the religion that my parents passed on to me and from the profession that I have practiced for more than fifty years.
After all, didn't Heidegger say that man "is a being for death"? It is one of the few theses of his that I appreciate.
My mother-in-law told me that when they evicted a certain relative, his wife started to whine a little (with good reason, poor thing), but the sick man cut off the expansion by telling her: "Do me a favor and call the priest, and have all my children and grandchildren come, so that they can see and verify how a Christian dies..."
Admirable, but, anyway, I'm not in that position yet and I wouldn't know how to do the same without getting melodramatic.
Before the matter concerned me live, there were two things that concerned me.
The first one was that when I heard: "You have cancer", it made me cringe, I felt as if some kind of worm was devouring me from the inside. I thought I would get hysterical and have it removed on the spot, like someone who jumps when he notices that a spider has fallen on him.
But no. Nor have I gone over to the denialist side, like those who stick their heads under the wing and procrastinate. sine die the recommended treatment.
I have limited myself to comply without haste or pause with the deadlines prescribed by the medical superiority. The surprise has been that I have not experienced the disease as something strange. Without identifying with the thing, I have felt it as much my own as the healthy parts of my anatomy. It may be cancer, but in any case it is my cancer. I have declared war on it, but it is not a alien. This has given me serenity. I think I owe it in part to another friend who is now gone, Paco Vidarte, who recounted the episodes of his illness in a blog. One day the doctors gave him permission to leave the hospital for a few hours and he took a photo in the restaurant and posted it with the following comment: "This is the steak that the lymphoma and I ate". If it is said that "up to the tail, everything is bull", in order to be at peace with ourselves we have to accept that body and soul, health and illness, virtues and defects, joys and sorrows, are an indissoluble part of our being. I managed to start being happy when I managed to reconcile myself with my bald head and other defects I suffer from. I am not going to be bitter now because of a disease that the doctor has assured me (with what authority?) that it will not kill me. What the hell! Not even if it killed me... There is an anecdote about Frederick II of Prussia that always amused me and now comes to mind. He was commanding his army in a battle when a part of the troops fled in disbandment. At a gallop he cut off the deserters, saying: "But do you really think you will never die?"
It may be cancer, but in any case it is my cancer. I have declared war on it, but it is not an alien. This has given me serenity.Juan Arana
The second scruple I had was being the last to know. Anyone who thinks that I will be incapable of dealing with the situation will have a very low opinion of me. In fact, I sealed a reciprocal pact with my wife not to hide the seriousness of the situation from each other when it arises. Fortunately, it seems that this kind of compassionate conspiracy has fallen into disuse. Of course, there are always those who does not want to know. Many refuse to get checked and even stubbornly ignore quite unmistakable symptoms. In addition to self-deception, they are crying out to be fooled and it is only right to indulge them, especially if there is not much that can be done to cure them. But even if medicine still fails to solve many problems, it at least succeeds most of the time in see them coming from afar.
Another point to consider is that the word "cancer" is becoming less dramatic, thank God. In the past, it was synonymous with a death sentence, a horror for oneself and for those who heard of the misfortune, who looked upon the carrier of the syndrome as a kind of specter, a dying person who could be written off for all purposes, except to be the object of pity and prayers.
This last point is of interest. I am a believer, and as such I regularly practice prayer. At home we pray the rosary almost every day and we have the habit of dedicating each mystery to an intention, as we propose it in turn. It's a good idea as far as I'm concerned, since my altruism needs to be reinforced. The bad thing is that when it's your turn, you spend the previous mystery racking your brains to decide what or who you are going to dedicate it to, instead of focusing on the prayer.
In this sense, having a close cancer patient represents a sure value, although a melancholy one, because many end up going to heaven, when what we wanted was for them to stay with us longer. This has led me to ask myself, what do I pray for and, above all, what should I pray for? I was enlightened by the passage from Luke 4:25-30, where Jesus Christ says:
"Truly, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah the prophet, when it did not rain for three and a half years and there was much famine throughout the land; but Elijah was not sent to any of the Israelite widows, but to one in Zarephath, near the city of Sidon. There were also in Israel many sick with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, but none of them was healed except Naaman, who was from Syria. When they heard this, all who were in the synagogue were very angry."
Leaving aside the fact that my faith has never been one of those that move mountains, the fact itself is clear and -if we think about it a little- fair, adequate and even consoling: miracles and providential events are not there to satisfy the whims, not even the agonizing needs of humans in general or of praying souls in particular. They do not serve to make God conform to human convenience, but on the contrary, to make us accommodate ourselves to the design of the Divinity (which for us most of the time is secret and obscure).
It is understandable and even healthy to exclaim: "Lord, let it be done as You wish, but please, WANT THIS!"However, if the effects obtained are different from those proposed, it would be absurd to throw a tantrum, like those parishioners who, after the unsuccessful maneuver of processioning the patron saint to hasten the end of the drought, opted to throw him into the river, step and all. I do not believe that in this respect there is a better formula than the one used by the common people: May it be what God wills!
Borges wrote somewhere:
The evidence of death is statistical
and there is no one who does not run the risk of being the first immortal
A poet has the right to say whatever he wants, but with all due respect, rather than: "correr el albur" he should have put: "tener la veleidad", because not even as an albur does unlimited survival fit us.
Borges himself wrote a short story, The immortal, whose protagonist achieves it by magic and finds it to be something atrocious. What we desire (even without knowing it) is not the everlasting life (which would literally be very long for us), but rather the eternal life. Without cancer or anything else, it is enough for me to look in the mirror every morning to see my mortality portrayed in it.
A few months ago I gave a lecture on Ray Kurzweil, a crazy transhumanist eminence who pretends, in the wake of Borges, to become the first immortal. I thought that the best way to refute him was to show on the same slide of the powerpoint a photo of him from thirty years ago and others from now. Life is not a state, it is a journey, and as such it is as bad if it ends too soon as too late.
It is also inadvisable for this type of rehearsal to be unreasonably prolonged. I conclude with a reflection on whether or not it is advisable to inform those who know you of the threat to your health. Aristotelianly, I believe that here too one can be mistaken by excess as well as by defect. After all, this is not a state secret, especially if you have already retired and do not hold positions and functions from which you should be relieved. On the other hand, if things take a bad turn, it is not a good idea for people to have your obituary for breakfast, without having the opportunity to say goodbye beforehand or -if that sounds funereal- to accompany you for a while.
Having said that, I will warn that I am not so suspicious as to think that the happy outcome predicted by the professionals and amateurs of the res medica of my environment responds to a malicious plot to keep me in the fig tree. I am well aware that prostate cancer is not the same as cancer of the pancreas, esophagus or brain. I am less knowledgeable about degrees of malignancies, but apparently I have also been lucky (because luck, what is called luck, would have been better to have remained healthy as an apple, don't you think?)
I am also aware, however, that sometimes things go wrong. My biopsy, for example, was not going to be anything and then a complication occurred that gave me a hard time. Have I exhausted my quota of unforeseeable misfortunes?
Statisticians say that it would be simple to believe it. But, anyway, what I was getting at is that in the field of public relations there are also unexpected effects when one tries not to go too far one way or the other.
The first is that it would seem that even under rocks there are victims and survivors of the same or similar trauma, which is very encouraging, even if it takes the spotlight away from you.
The second is that there are also many who, with the good intention of cheering you up, tell you that it is no big deal, that your cancer is second or third division. Although in part, in effect, they are reassuring you, in part they are giving you a slap in the face as punishment for having pretended to be the bride at the wedding, the child at the christening or the dead (excuse me) at the funeral.
So, to show that I have learned the lesson of humility, I no longer say that I suffer from a carcinoma, nor a tumor, not even a small tumor. I now report (and not to everyone) that I am having my prostate removed, like to everyone.
Professor of Philosophy at the University of Seville, full member of the Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, visiting professor in Mainz, Münster and Paris VI -La Sorbonne-, director of the philosophy journal Nature and Freedom and author of numerous books, articles and collaborations in collective works.