Over the course of my career as a physician, I’ve occasionally been asked to help a friend through a new diagnosis of cancer. Mind you, I am not a cancer specialist, but I know enough about life, death, and healthcare to at least offer a perspective. I am not vested in beating the disease; instead, I try to help the person understand the road ahead and the choices that they will need to make. You have to give to get. If you want to live a little longer, that may mean taking the poison, going under the knife, and losing precious time coming back and forth for radiation. The older I get, the less intervention I think I’ll want when my time comes. But we’ll see. It’s different when it’s your time.
Sometimes I look into the person’s eyes hoping to see what they see. Often there is fear of the unknown. But sometimes, I have a little envy. It is different than a sudden death, or one where you fade with age. This person now has a clock, an enemy staring them in the face reminding them of their own mortality—and so they feel each moment differently, with greater urgency and importance.
Now, as a nation, we are collectively in the grips of a disease that can take you or a loved one suddenly. To give you some perspective, roughly 43,000 Americans die every year from breast cancer, and just over 50,000 die from colon cancer. We are on track to double that number from COVID. Each action, each choice is considered and reconsidered. We second-guess ourselves. Our mortality, typically buried deep within our subconscious, rises to the top. Esther Perel, a respected psychotherapist, has described COVID as a “relationship accelerator.” It jolts us from our slumber, forces us outside our comfort zones, and makes us appreciate those around us a bit more. It helps us focus on whether we are happy or unsatisfied with our lives. It’s cancer at a mass scale.
People feel a greater sense of urgency these days. I’ve heard the number of divorces in Wuhan are up 30%, but marriages are up by the same amount. For me personally, I’m finding that many of the things I once took for granted now merit more serious consideration. I’ve had some of my own challenges recently unrelated to COVID. I want to visit family back east, but they worry I’ll bring the virus from a hot spot state. Will I make them sick? Will I be able to get back if I get a fever? Connection has a cost.
We are all susceptible to contracting a virus that has been proven to be deadly. You or someone you love may not be here tomorrow. But—here’s the important thing—that is true every day. Nothing is promised, so we must rejoice in the opportunities we are given. COVID has made us more aware of how fragile life is, but also how sweet every day should be.
Candy Hall says
Great article Dr Pitt, thank you for all you do.
Geoffrey Kaufmann says
You are becoming more of a philosopher every day my friend and this perspective amid the pandemic is sorely missing. Thank you.
I really enjoyed this read and your perspective. I am thinking a lot about my family in England who I can’t go visit, I don’t know when I will see them again and its the not knowing that makes it the hardest. I am so grateful for zoom, facetime and all the other technologies that allow me to talk face to face and see their expressions, their aging and their smiles, its all we might have for a while so we are making the most of it.