We all like to think we’re in control of our lives. But as I learned from a fellow cancer patient, luck is still very much part of the equation.
“I’ll see you when you get out,” I said, shaking Frank’s hand.
Part of me knew I was lying. I’m no doctor, but I had a strong hunch that I was shaking the hand of a dead man. I had lost a lot of weight following my bone marrow transplant. But Frank? Frank was positively skeletal.
It was a far cry from how he looked when I first met him a few months earlier. Our chemo schedules lined up, which meant we spent many, many, many hours in waiting rooms together. We didn’t chat much — I kept mostly to myself during treatment. But I became an expert people watcher, which helped me get to know Frank and his wife.
Given how loud Frank was, eavesdropping proved fairly simple. Not loud in a bad way. He was charismatic and quick with a joke, whether it was about his IV falling out in the shower or how his big belly made his subcutaneous injections a cinch. His brand of dark humour was right up my alley and helped the long days go faster.
I also learned that Frank would be receiving his bone marrow transplant a week before mine. I took selfish comfort in having an ally in the trenches with me. Of course, the strict rules around post-transplant isolation and the fact that most of the time you simply don’t have the energy to get out of bed meant that we didn’t see much of each other.
The few times we did run into each other on the transplant ward, we’d be wheeling our IV pumps up and down the corridors for exercise. And each time I saw Frank, he looked worse. I’m sure I looked pretty beat up myself, but this was different: it was clear things were not going well.
A few weeks after my transplant, my new stem cells had engrafted and began producing healthy blood on their own. It was a tough go, but bit-by-bit my counts crept up. My transplant had been successful. Down the hall, Frank’s had not.
Shaking Frank’s hand before I left, I did my best to not let my face betray my concern.
During a follow-up appointment not long after, Mom and I overheard a couple talking in the waiting room about a patient who had died on the 14th floor — the transplant ward. A quick Google search for an obituary when we returned home confirmed our suspicions.
Frank had died.
Living with Lady Luck
At the start of my workshop on Overcoming Obstacles, I talk briefly about how I flipped a coin after my oncologist gave me a 40-50 per cent chance of surviving, but understood that it would take a lot more than luck to get through my illness. From there, the workshop unpacks some of the keys to resilience — motivation, adaptability, teamwork, the right tools and self-care. While I find the coin flip story a useful way to kick off the discussion, we don’t delve very deep into the idea of luck.
But luck plays a huge role in our lives. Two men walked into the hospital for bone marrow transplants. Both had leukemia. Both had the same doctors. One survived. One didn’t. Of course, there were a million-and-one other factors at play — Frank’s age, the complexity of his case, other underlying conditions. Still, it was a sobering reminder of how things could have easily ended up differently for me.
The idea of luck can be an unnerving one, especially for people like me who put a lot of stock in planning, budgeting and having control over situations. But the fact is, as much as we like to think we’re masters of our destinies, we’re still often at the mercy of chance. A rainy day can foil the weeks you put into organizing the company golf tournament. Unexpected traffic can make you late for a meeting, even if you give yourself loads of time. Your hopes for a super productive week may be dashed when a flu bug hits.
The secret, I think, is accepting that luck and life are inseparable and finding ways to be ready for when misfortune strikes. That could mean having an emergency savings account, a backup wedding venue in case it rains or a roadside assistance membership in the off chance you get a flat on the way home.
And then there’s the bad luck that you could never see coming, like a sudden death in the family or a flash flood destroying your house. That’s where adaptability comes in. If you step on one of lady luck’s landmines, surround yourself with supportive people, remind yourself of the good things you still have in your life and start planning a new way forward.
Finally, I think it’s important to remind ourselves of all the good luck in our lives. After all, right now you’re sitting on a rock capable of supporting intelligent life, flying 109,000 km/hour through space. You are the culmination of millions of years of evolution, and the sperm that helped make you had to beat 500 million other little swimmers.
On top of that, take a look at your family tree. If just one of your ancestors failed to meet their mate, you wouldn’t exist. One missed encounter, one decision not to have a second date, one bout of sniffles keeping your great-great-grandmother from going to the dance, and POOF. No you. The fact that you are here is staggering in its unlikeliness. Take a step back from time to time to marvel at that.
I’m grateful every day for how fortunate I am to be here. I wish Frank had the same luck I did. I think of him often and hope his family is doing OK. I don’t know why I got to live and he didn’t, but I hope I never forget the lessons he taught me about how precarious life can be, to accept that some things are out of my control and to not take what I’ve got for granted.
Rest in Peace, Frank.
Like these stories? You’ll find a whole whack of them — more than 50 in fact — in my book Simple(ton) Living: Lessons in balance from life’s absurd moments.