A terminal illness is a lens through which that which matters most can
shift into perfect clarity. Anger and sorrow do not dictate my life.
-Marina Pomare Kaplan-
This past week our community lost an intelligent, bright, and giving soul. My wife and I connected with Marina Pomare Kaplan at a neighborhood meeting. We had gathered in the park across from our home to discuss our community—what was good about it and what could be better. We were immediately taken by her quiet, personable, and focused persona. Sitting there, ball cap on her shaven head, she smiled, encouraged, and added to the conversation. More than anything, she listened and asked authentic questions. After the meeting, I immediately reached out to Marina. I wanted to learn more about and from her.
What a delight and breath of fresh air!
I learned about (and soon thereafter, met) her family. And I learned about Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC). In fact, Marina and I scheduled a date to record a podcast about MBC. She had to cancel because of her having to go the Emergency Room. We rescheduled—and had to postpone again. On January 1 of this year, she reached out to confirm the rescheduled date. Unfortunately, we were not able to record the episode. She passed on January 13, 2020.
In typical Marina fashion, however, she sent me documents with her thoughts about cancer, family, life, and purpose. I will share a few of her thoughts here as they are instructive for all of us. A reminder to live with verve, wit, intellect, purpose, and love. Embrace the vulnerability. And live each moment.
Marina, we will miss you. We will never replace you. And your words will live on as your legacy. Your optimism. Your tenacity. Your realism. Your drive. It is up to us to pay attention and not let life get in the way of living a meaningful life.
Here are Marina’s words (printed here with permission from her husband, Paul) on cancer, community, and connectedness. She titled this:
Musings on Life with Terminal Cancer.
A stage-4 cancer diagnosis is an awful shock, mind-numbing, disorienting and terribly frightening. It’s overwhelming. It devastates you and it devastates your family and friends. It fosters some of the worst thoughts and fears. Making those phone calls to your dear family and your closest friends is probably the worst single thing you will ever have to do. And then calling them again, and again, and again every time there is progression and again as the prognosis gets worse and again as it gets worse again….and again.
I will never say cancer is a gift, or cancer made me a better person. I will never put a positive spin on this awful relentless disease. It’s a horrible, random, crappy thing that happens to perfectly ordinary people living perfectly ordinary lives.
Where death was once an abstract concept and suddenly it’s right there in your face concrete and real and just around the corner. The smack in the gut when your doctor tells you to get your affairs in order and things like a DNR, a medical power of attorney, your funeral and your obituary become very real.
But, it’s not all fear and anguish all the time. There are extraordinary moments of brightness and living, and those moments of fully living life are most of my life.
The sense of community and connectedness. The depth and breadth of my life has expanded tremendously since my diagnosis. I am buoyed up by my community – my family and my friends near and far. I’ve experienced extraordinary levels of kindness, and a profound feeling of connection.
People say things to me, beautiful caring things that they would most likely not have felt the need to say. People do things for me that are just boundless in their generosity. People have come out of the woodwork to show me love and open their hearts to me and my family. There is magic in the realization that the best of humanity is lifting you up, holding you close, reaching out and touching your life in whatever way they can. There is magic in the community that forms around you and those you love when crisis touches your life.
I have met extraordinary men and women through having metastatic breast cancer, we call ourselves the worst club with the best people.
I am acutely conscious of the extraordinary depth of love, gratitude and admiration I feel for my daughters and my husband, knowing what incredible gifts they are.
The fragile beauty of life: There’s also a shift in your perceptions when faced with a deeper understanding of the fragile beauty of life. Everything becomes clearer and everything becomes so profoundly precious. There is sheer bliss in the simple joys of life, felt so much more deeply when experienced alongside the knowledge that it’s fleeting and the reality of imminent loss… A terminal illness is a lens through which that which matters most can shift into perfect clarity. Anger and sorrow do not dictate my life.
There is always a tiny bit of hope. Statistics are statistics. Before my stage 4 diagnosis I paid attention to statistics. Now that on paper I am “a statistic” I realize that’s a tautology. I’m not, in fact, a statistic, none of us are. We are living breathing people and we are not the mean, mode or average. We are whatever we are and we really don’t know where we may fall under that statistical curve.
There’s so much excitement in me around the advances in research. So many promising things in the pipeline. So many brilliant and dedicated scientists. While there is so much we don’t know, there is also so much that is waiting to be done – things that may develop that change the course of my treatment for the better.
Accepting the randomness of our lives. Although there are moments of pity and “why me?” these moments are rare and brief. Because it’s a random thing and the “why me?” is met with a “why not?”. It helps so much knowing that there’s no one to blame, not myself, not a murderer wielding a gun. Just a bizarrely sophisticated and adaptive bunch of cells in my body having a grand old time. Giving up that self-defeating illusion of control. That takes off so much pressure and gives me a certain level of comfort – knowing and accepting that things can and will change in an instant. This certainty has provided me with a measure of peace.
Vulnerability. In this world we are taught to be strong, to take charge, to be powerful. It leaves little room for vulnerability. Having cancer and going through the truly awful toxic treatments, intense physical and emotional pain, hospitalizations, surgeries, constant needle sticks, scans and progression makes you come face to face with your vulnerability. I chose to give in to that vulnerability. I chose to not be strong and tough, but rather to float along with a feeling of going along with and accepting my vulnerability and not fighting it. Yes I’m aggressive about pursuing treatment and doing everything I can to prolong my life and take care of myself the best I can, but at the end of the day I completely accept that I am in a position of extreme vulnerability. And that’s OK.
Living in the present moment – I have always been present-oriented and more likely to live in the moment and be what’s now called mindful. I was this way long before it was fashionable, in fact back in the day it was pretty much frowned upon – we were supposed to be linear thinkers, planning, striving for future goals, logical type A’s. I was a type B minus. My doctoral dissertation was on temporal orientation (the interaction effects of temporal orientation and task conditionality on performance and motivation). I suppose I was trying to justify my present-oriented tendencies that came across as poor planning and laziness. Now, thank goodness, being mindful and being in the moment is a good thing, recognized for its health benefits. Being present-oriented is very useful when living with terminal cancer. Getting totally absorbed in little things like the feeling of soft warm sand, like the beauty of dew on a blade of grass, like the sound of waves or the smell of seaweed. Mmmm life is a beautiful thing. Also it helps that I have the attention span of a goldfish. One moment I’m frightened and worried, the next moment I forget to be frightened or worried.
But anyway, I firmly believe that all we have is the moment, that’s all we experience. Life is a series of moments and one day my moments will stop. But when you know that all you have is the moment, and there’s no experiencing the past and there’s no experiencing your future, just the present moment. In that way your present moment is eternal.
Resilience – bouncing back. Am I the mole or am I the wielding the mallet? I thought of myself as the mole in whack-a-mole – I pop my head up optimistically and it gets whacked down. When I mentioned to a friend that cancer was like whack-a-mole she thought I meant that each progression is the mole popping up and that I whack it down with the mallet each time. It made me change my perspective for a while, I liked thinking of myself as wielding a mallet instead of being whacked on the head. But my thinking has evolved, now I realize I’m both the mole and I’m the wielder of the mallet. After all cancer is my body doing something.
Podcast recommendation for the week
Make it a great week and HTRB has needed.
Stay tuned for my new book to be released in early 2020:
Roxie Looks for Purpose Beyond the Biscuit.
Well, actually, my dog Roxie gets top billing on the author page for this work. Without her, there would be no story. Click here for more information about the book. In the meantime, check out her blog.
And you can still order:
- My book, Community as a Safe Place to Land (2019), (print and e-book) is available on More information (including seven free podcast episodes that spotlight the seven core values highlighted in the book) at www.stevepiscitelli.com.
- Check out my book Stories about Teaching, Learning, and Resilience: No Need to be an Island (2017). It has been adopted for teaching, learning, and coaching purposes. I conducted (September 2019) a half-day workshop for a community college’s new faculty onboarding program using the scenarios in this book. Contact me if you and your team are interested in doing the same. The accompanying videos would serve to stimulate community-building conversations at the beginning of a meeting.
My podcasts can be found at The Growth and Resilience Network®.
©2020. Steve Piscitelli
The Growth and Resilience Network®