Five years ago, the results came in: at age 43, I had colon cancer.

Let’s explain a bit what that means, because colon cancer runs in my family like The Force through Skywalkers (so far, only one person has laughed at that. It is intended to be funny, so please, laugh if so inclined). My grandfather Sandor was a loving family man, professional actor of the Hungarian Theater in New York in the 30’s, along with my dear grandmother. His family name was Blitzer, but that was a bit too Jewish for that time in Hungary so he changed it to Bodroghy. He was apparently a charming man, and had his own radio show called “Sandor and His Violin”. My father Jack Meissner knew of that show and my grandfather before he even met my mother.

Grandfather Sandor as I must call him, because we had no intimate name for him like Grandpa or Papa, died of colon cancer at age 39, right at the time my mom and dad got married.

Fast forward to his grandchildren, four boys in this particular line. Three of four of us had ulcerative colitis from childhood, two in the hospital at the same time, one not too far from death. We all survived our youth, with constant discomfort, pain, and sometimes embarrassment. But we survived, at least until 2002, when my oldest brother John was diagnosed with colon cancer.

John, you must understand, was the kindest of us. He had, shall we say, an interesting late teen and early 20’s. But throughout, John was friendly, kind, and generous to a fault. And part of that kindness was understanding how we would likely react with upset at this news, so John decided not to tell us until after his first surgery, where he lost two organs to the cancer.

He called after getting home from the hospital to tell me. It was the last time we spoke; John died within a couple of weeks at age 51 before getting his second surgery.

This is the backdrop of my own diagnosis. In fact, it was due to John’s death that I finally scheduled the colonoscopy I’d so skillfully avoided for the past decade. There weren’t any particular symptoms beyond what I’d spent about thirty years with already, and I was a decade younger than John.

… but still older than my grandfather.

People ask if I became religious after finding out I had cancer, and of course the answer is no on several counts. First, I’m not the least bit religious, I’m an atheist and my meditation practice is utterly secular in nature. Second, I already had a regular meditative practice, and had for a long time. Meditation preceeded any truly significant need for it to deal with the vagaries of life.

The diagnosis, odd as this may seem, could not have come at a better time. It was 2007, I’d been a meditator for perhaps fifteen years at that point, and a comprehensive and sometimes quite aggressive practice was already part of saving my life from a critical depression a couple of years before. The colonoscopy was scheduled just before going to a retreat at Bhavana Society in West Virginia — being secular does not mean we don’t value and learn from tradition — and the retreat was the usual nine day formal silent retreat at the forest monastery. My habit is to arrive a day early and stay a day late, to spend some time with my dear teacher monks and get settled in.

The retreat itself went well. My intention was to continue the practice of jhana, and interestingly enough the most deep meditative state occurred on the last day in the very last half hour. Yet another reason not to blow off the last sitting! And the next day, sharing a cab ride back to the airport with a nice Japanese woman I’d also carpooled with on the way to Bhavana.

If you’ve never been to a formal silent meditation retreat, I’ll just say that using your cell phone is not only not helpful to what the whole point of the retreat is, but you won’t often get a signal. So the first time I’d turned on my phone was on the way to the airport at a gas station, waiting for a replacement taxi as ours had broken down. Low and behold, the voice mail messages just kept piling up! There were a total of nine, perhaps not all that many by today’s standards, but I’m not much of a phonophile. And they were, to varying degrees, quite emphatic in their content. My doctor, the Hubert H. Humphrey Cancer Center, places like that all telling me I had colon cancer and had to schedule surgery right away.

My response was perhaps a bit unexpected in light of family history, but right in keeping with having had a solid meditation practice and just coming out of a good retreat: I closed the phone, and said to my companion, “That looks like a nice park over there. Shall we take a walk while we wait?”

Please understand that this was not avoidance, nor was it replacing a dreadful feeling with a nice one. It was simply the joy of being in this present moment, which gives a tremendous strength to deal with what might otherwise be the most terrifiying news. And looking back over the years since, there has not been any manifestation of the Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle, though I fully expected to not survive this long.

And that brings us to the present moment again. Today is Easter, a time of renewal. I have, against historical odds for my family, survived colon cancer (so far). But a question has come up lately, and that is What Have I Been Doing Since? Every year past 39 has been icing on the cake. Every day past age 43, sugary flowers on the icing. At some point, the little bit of me that was not removed by scalpel will become cancerous, and though I’ve been fortunate to have benefitted from medical science once, there is always the chance that it won’t be enough when that time comes.

There are changes coming that, I hope, will benefit others more than how I’ve spent the past five years (let alone the totality of my life). One of the things I heard that has stuck with me from the Wisdom 2.0 Conference is the idea of living a life of fulfillment, instead of enrichment. My last fortune cookie said something like, “The ending of one thing is the beginning of something new.”

And you all know how much I like fortune telling 🙂

No Comments

  1. Dana Nourie on April 8, 2012 at 11:55 pm

    Great post Ted! I always enjoy your sense of humor. I recall at our local sangha a nun came to speak about death and how we should meditate on our own deaths. I was surprised at how uncomfortable people were at the idea and many didn’t want to think about death at all. I had been contemplating death since I was a child. My dad died when I was five, and various family members went soon after.

    Our culture tends to view death as something abhorant, yet everything dies. Our practice helps in heaps to have a pragmatic view, to loosen attachments, and to accept nature as it is.

    I am grateful you are still here, and for my friends diagnosed with terminal cancer, while hard to contemplate their no longer being here, I have the incentive to make sure I spend quality time in those friendships.

    When we realize how short life can be, we tend to tend to the present with much more care.

  2. Tom Alan on April 9, 2012 at 9:25 am

    I’m sure you’re tired of hearing “There are no atheists in foxholes.” I don’t believe it, and it’s good to have a story like this one on hand to dispel the myth. I’ll remember it.

    I’m happy to see that someone else quotes fortune cookies. I’ve found them to be a source of inspirational thoughts. In fact, when I compare fortune cookie thoughts with quotes from Buddhist scholars posted on forums, I’m inclined to think that I’ve gained more from the cookies, and they’re much, much better than koans

  3. Linda on April 9, 2012 at 11:00 am

    So glad you’re still here, and that your practice was in place before you needed it to get through remarkably tough times. You are a superhero, a force for good in the world; I hope you stay with us a long, long time and enjoy every minute of it.

  4. Mark Knickelbine on April 10, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Thanks for sharing your story, Ted! Dharma practice is not about zoning out, muffling negative emotions, suppressing anxiety or creating the spotless mind. It’s about developing the equanimity and mental stability we need to embrace and respond to the whole catastrophe of life instead of escaping into grasping and aversive reactions.

    • Julian-Adkins on April 10, 2012 at 1:47 pm

      Thank you Ted, I really appreciate you choosing this time of year to share this. I think it is so important that we also celebrate elements of traditions like Christianity and Paganism when we can do so in ways that are true to our secular values. Easter is indeed symbolic of renewal and it is no coincidence that if falls in the Spring time. I have heard you talk more briefly about the experience of coming off of retreat to the news of your test results before. I find it inspiring and it reminds me what my practice is all about. I do not want to deny the transience of life, I want to embrace it in just the way you describe. I have just watched this documentary which I also found very moving: There is a part when Von Hagen describes coming close to death as a child. It apparently left him free from the fear of death afterwards and yet he seems to be deeply moved by it. However, the footage of his account of this experience leaves me unsure, perhaps what moves him more than death is life.

    • stoky on April 14, 2012 at 5:44 am

      Thank you very much for the post Ted. Besides all the moving parts I really appreciate the honest writing. I’m always impressed when people in such circumstances have the strength of facing reality rather then fleeing in illusions.

      I also agree with Mark on that. To me, equanimity doesn’t mean caring less about existing problems, but having the strength to face them rather than to run away. When that “problem” is a person (e.g. “you”) then you also need compassion for this. From the outside it often looks like Buddhism is about retaining from the world, the closer you look the more it seems to be about actively engaging with it.

  5. Stephen Schettini on April 12, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    Ted: a wonderfully straightforward post about our darkest fear.

    I was dumbfounded once when a workshop student raised her hand and began her question with, “I always wondered, if I was ever going to die….” If.

    Extraordinary, the human capacity for denial. The word may not be a literal translation of avidyā, but boy does it convey the willfulness of that special ignorance. And all out of fear of non-existence — the one single thing in this whole pulsating universe we can actually count on.

    I and the fellows of my monastic days were all damaged in some way or another. Why else would we have given up everything, taken vows of celibacy and decided to believe in transcendental enlightenment? We’d all been slapped around sufficiently by life to question it most seriously. The Buddha too saw that we have to start with disappointment. Without it, no practice gets off the ground.

    Which brings us to you. You probably don’t feel courageous because your stoicism was forced on you by the mere anticipation of this diagnosis, but your dauntlessness is engraved in the non-shock value of this post. It ennobles you.

    I’ve had only a few conversations with you but all were memorable. This post explains a lot about you. I was proud to know you before, but I’m even more so now. You’re quite a bloke, Ted.

    With much affection and the very best of luck from me and Caroline.

  6. Ted Meissner on April 12, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    Hmmmm… you know, everyone, it’s not entirely fair to post things that make the devoutly secular person bow with hands together in humility 🙂

    You are all too kind. This sort of thing is what happens to us in our lives, we can only prepare as best we can. Happily, we’ve encountered a metholodogy that works for us, has benefits outside of stress management, inspires us, *and* keeps us in the natural world.

    Now, just the next step: share what we’ve found, that this is for everyone regardless of their religious or non-religious practices.

    Oh, and save the world, that should come naturally!

  7. Keren Dar on August 27, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    Sometimes there is Grace….

    Thank you for your sharing; My family too has colon cancer in the female line heheh;
    My grandmother died of it, my mother is going next week for a scope there is an obstruction..

    I have read the writing on the wall I am mindful of diet; stress relief and regular check ups.

    I am greedy

    I cover all the bases, The Mystery sits just fine with critical thinking.

    I dont find a contradiction between acceptance that there are some Forces that I may not be able to verify.
    and those that I can.

    In time all changes.

    • Ted Meissner on August 28, 2012 at 10:08 am

      The mystery can help energize our critical thinking. As long as we don’t give mystery a self, and hold it up as something that cannot or should not be explored.

  8. ellen123 on August 29, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    Dear Ted,
    I am sorry you have to go through such struggles. I am sorry your family has had to endure such loss and pain. No one can feel another’s anguish or understand their capacities and yet the stories we tell of our own struggles somehow call our heart to open and send love.

    Your story so touched me and instead of sadness I felt gratitude, gratitude that you have turned your energy to the dharma and in that your sharing of its possibilities with others.

    This is the work of a Bodhisattva, Ted. May you and your family be blessed with all sorts of wonderfully beautiful moments.


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