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  • Writer's pictureBrad Thiessen

When You're Left Surviving Cancer: What’s an Outlier to Do?

Updated: May 20

Resilience after cancer requires accepting the possibility of dying
Image by Simon from Pixabay

My favorite movie is a documentary called Touching the Void.

It tells the story of Joe Simpson, who travels with his buddy Simon Yates to Peru to climb the 21,000-foot high mountain called Siula Grande. On the way down, disaster strikes when a blinding snow storm hits. Simpson falls off the edge. Yates, tethered to him and unable to pull him up, has to cut the rope.

Simpson falls something like fifty or a hundred feet into a crevasse. He tries climbing out, but his leg is so damaged he can’t push past the mind-searing pain.

So he starts to crawl.

Odds are 99.99% that he’ll die. But through sheer superhuman grit and a good dose of odds-bucking chance he makes it out of the crevasse and down the mountain over the course of a couple of weeks.

It’s the ultimate outlier story.


I, like Joe Simpson, have been told I'm an outlier -- that I’m beating the odds every day I’m still up on 2 feet and talking straight.

Besides the three cancer episodes and eight brain surgeries, a brain infection that led to hydrocephalus (water on the brain) this past summer left me incoherent and unable to walk.

For a few weeks it was touch and go.

Or at least that's what they tell me. Even when I was awake, my brain wasn't picking up the signals the real world was sending. I don’t remember much of that time, other than a bunch of dreams that feel like memories.

My journey back to health was, in the words of my brain surgeon, “like Lazarus rising from the dead.”

Am I bragging about climbing above my scrapes and bruises? I hope not. To me the presentation of my journey frames itself as grappling: for meaning, for purpose, for understanding how to make sense of it all.

It’s not like I’m unique. I’m not the only outlier out there; not even in terms of cancer.

We’ve all heard so many stories of near-death experiences and miraculous recoveries that they’ve almost become expected. Without miraculous survival stories, Reader’s Digest would be a double-sided pamphlet.

Some who are supposed to live, die; some who are absolutely supposed to die, live.

I guess that's why I identify with Simpson. The raw, difficult experiences I’ve had—the ones that make me an outlier—have put a searing brand on my mind.

By stripping away my defenses, they have pushed me to live past my fear of death.

Having felt (whether accurately or not) that I might die from a recurrence five years ago and a brain infection this past summer, it feels like death, that panther that prowls outside my window every night, isn’t something to fear.

I had the chance to test how able I actually was to face death last fall (2020), six months before the hydrocephalus. A routine MRI picked up a very small recurrence of the tumor in my brain – small, but definitely there.

There was no reason to be surprised. It was six months past my five-year cancerversary (yes, that’s apparently a word), and my type of cancer has a three- to five-year recurrence rate.

I had wondered how I’d ever get through it all again if and when the cancer came back. And now it was happening.

But as I waited 3 months for the follow-up MRI, there was no anxiety.

What will be, will be.

Change what you can control, and accept the rest.

Miracle of miracles, the next MRI came back clean. The tiny little tumor that everyone had seen with their own eyes – radiologist, neurosurgeon, neurologist, my wife Rachelle, me – was gone.

I had been so okay with my fate, whatever that turned out to be, that the report brought only a muted response. Sure, I was happy, but there was no explosion of confetti in my soul.

It’s not that I invite death, or that I don't celebrate life.

Even when it feels like the body and the brain are doing their best to quit for good, and even when the tears push me into the ditch, the drive to go on eventually pulls me back onto the highway.

My goal heading into this year (2021) had been to dive into themes of finding health, resilience and joy. I’m doing okay so far on the first two; the last one is still a whisper I hope to coax into a song I wake up to every day.

I think it comes down to this: we are all called to live into who we are, regardless of the hand we’re dealt or the time we’re given.

Maybe that’s obvious, but it’s a lesson I’m learning every day. How about you?

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