Search This Blog

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Life is a lot like Vegas

Life is like Vegas. We are all playing the odds. And, depending on our belief systems, someone else is the House.

Yes, whether you believe it is God or Karma or Fate, Vishnu or Krishna or They Flying Spaghetti Monster, something else has the odds in its favor. We will be gone; the rest of the world will be here.

Just last week, a young mother here in town--daughter of one of the most popular pastors in town, graduate student at the university, beloved wife, and, most heart-breaking, mother of kindergarten-age twin sons--was killed coming out of the Kroger parking lot. BAM! The odds weren't in her favor at that moment, and she lost. The 81 year old man who ran the red light and hit her car? Clearly, the odds weren't in his favor at that moment. I'm sure he didn't head out that day to kill someone. I haven't followed the story at all, so I don't know what condition he is in. I know that the accident has been described as "Worst. Accident. Ever." by my 17 year old son who arrived on the scene shortly afterward (talk about odds...given his gender and age, hearing sirens while he was out driving struck fear in my heart...will his odds come up?) and "horrific" by my 14 year old's physical therapist who witnessed it, and "horrendous" by aFacebook friend who witnessed it.

My supposition is that the elderly man was also injured, but I don't know for sure. It would be easy to say that he should have died instead. He is 81 and has lived a long life. However, we don't know what his life was like before this incident. Maybe this accident is the icing on the cake of a long, horrible, shitty life. Maybe someone is thinking, "...and to top it off, he was responsible for killing someone in a car accident." Maybe when he dies, no one will be at his funeral. Maybe, because of his injuries, he'll live several more years in agonizing, excruciating pain, wishing he were dead. Maybe, he doesn't care at all. Regardless, going with my assumption that he didn't cause the accident intentionally, the odds were also against him that evening, and he, too, lost to the House.

It all seems so random. The vast majority of people who get lung cancer smoke. Most people who smoke, don't get lung cancer. Who decides? While we know what increases the risk of breast cancer, why do some people get it and not others? Certainly, my weight could have been lower; clearly (as evidenced by my weight), my diet could have been better; undeniably (once again as evidenced by my weight), my lifestyle could have been more active. I'm willing to accept that I had some risk factors. Yet, I breastfed for 13 years nonstop. In general, our family diet, with the exception of certain periods where we fell off the wagon, wasn't horrible. Not nearly as bad as the "typical American" family's diet.

Even worse, I have a friend who has led a breast cancer unfriendly life. In general, she's done everything right, and snake eyes for her, too. In a sense, she lost twice. Her tumor had two characteristics that contribute to recurrence. I only have one. Plus, she's even younger than I am.

A lot of people I know are counting on having breastfed and not having a family history of breast cancer to protect them. That's like buying lottery tickets hoping to retire well.

I know when people go to Vegas and gamble, some people choose their game of chance by what the odds are. Yet, most choose because they like a particular game or feel proficient at a particular game.

Some people do have certain skills that increase their odds of beating the House. Some are better at statistics than others (I would be one of those "than others" in this situation) and, therefore, play smarter than others. That's the old "You've gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em" player. There are people who can count cards. The House considers that cheating, but it's really more playing to the advantage of the intelligence and skill of the ones who can count cards. There are other ways of cheating that I only know about because I like to watch detective shows on TV.

Increasing your odds of winning at gambling can still result in losing. If a player, like my one son, has internalized the various odds, and therefore plays smarter than most, eventually, someone else will be dealt a better hand. At some point, that will be the House. He loses. All professional gamblers accept the fact that they will lose big on occasion.

Players who can count cards, I see as a metaphor for those people who do it ALL right. They are the equivalent of people who are so intent on living healthy that the joy is sucked right out of their lives. Those people full of rules and who never break them. I've known a few people like that. Counting cards, to my knowledge, isn't "illegal." But it does take the fun away from other players, whose odds of beating the card counter drop dramatically. Games are supposed to be fun. The playing field (table top?) is supposed to be level. It's the House that really hates card counters. It's the House that goes after them. It's the House that, in respectable places of games of chance, will throw them out. In other places, will break their hands or worse. If they get caught. Smart card counters know how far to push the limits of success. They don't get greedy. But others, BAM. Of course, none of them goes into it expecting to get caught.

I think we've all known those people who, either because of fear or hubris or whatever--maybe a desire to just be perfect--, focus their lives on preventing. I know I have known them: the mothers who show up at birthday parties with their own food for their precious offspring. I don't mean the ones whose children have legitimate dietary concerns, such as allergies or who live in an vegan family and want their child to be able to have fun, too. I mean the ones who just "don't allow sugar." At all. Ever. Because sugar is bad. I mean the people who, when invited to dinner, quiz the host about the origin of the food. Again, not because of legitimate health concerns, but as one of my friends said, "I think you don't care about contaminates." So, OK, my chili probably isn't good enough for you.

It's one thing to do your best to be healthy. It's something totally different to let that be your overriding focus. Life needs to be joyful. Joy can be found in sharing food with others. occasional piece of candy, an occasional slice of white bread, an occasional non-organic apple most likely won't hurt.

The irony is that even these "perfect" people lose to the House on occasion. Consider Jim Fixx as an example.

Once you've been diagnosed with cancer, a different kind of odds comes into play: the odds of survival.

Those are the odds I don't like to talk about.

In fact, I'll let you in on a secret here: I haven't asked my oncologist about my odds of survival. I know myself pretty well. I wouldn't say I'm a "glass half empty" kind of person, but if I hear "60% odds of survival," I'll think, well, that's nice, but that means there's nearly a 50% chance of not surviving.

I also avoid all references on the internet about this kind of stuff. Early on, I made a statement that I didn't want to hear about people who have died from breast cancer. Six months later, I still hold fast to that.

I have yet to talk to any person who has a serious illness who enjoys questions about survival. Outside of my immediate family, no one really has the right to ask me about my chances of survival. Or even my prognosis. The thing is, we are all hoping to be on the far right hand side of the survival bell curve. So, let don't drag us back to reality. Believe me, most of us face reality. We have doctors. They give it to us straight or most of them do. Let's just assume that things are going to end as well as possible.

The first time I met with my oncologist, she declared my cancer "garden variety." She has also assured my youngest son that "mom will get better." She is the mother of sons herself. I trust that she is operating under the assumption that cancer will not kill me. That I am going to beat the House in this particular game. That's all I need to know. However, she's an aggressive player, hence the extra chemo. Her patients do incredibly well. She's at least a smart player. Maybe she's even a wise card counter: not trying to make her fortune by beating the House, but also not drawing unnecessary attention to her play. I'm hoping the House isn't going to come after her where I am concerned and break her arms.

That doesn't mean that I'm not also trying to increase my odds of survival. I want to play smart, to give the House a run for its money. I'm willing to make changes in my and my family's diet. I'm dedicated to increasing my exercise. There appears to be a direct correlation to the type of cancer I have recurring and exercise. So, damn, an hour a day, at least 5 days a week, will become a non-negotiable as soon as I'm physically capable of it. I'm trying to figure out ways to decrease my family's exposure to environmental toxins.

The problem lies in how to be sane about this. The House is still out there. I can win at this game, but lost at another. The next time I get in the car, I could be killed. Heck, a meteor could land on me while I sleep in bed tonight. I could choke to death on my green smoothie. I'm not arguing that these things are likely to happen, but they could. I do what I can to decrease my odds of dying in a car accident. I wear my seatbelt. I drive defensively. But who knows when someone will run a red light and kill me? I'm not willing to avoid driving.

Just the same, I'm not willing to make my family a martyr to avoiding cancer. I'm not going to insist that my kids don't eat at friends' houses, nor am I going to refuse to allow junk food into my house. I'm certainly not going to serve a soccer team of teen boys sautéed kale and expect that they will return to my home. Nor am I willing to make homemade, whole wheat, organic sauce pizzas for 10 hungry boys. So, store bought will have to do.

I've been reading the book Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life. This guy has done his research. Based on other research, I disagree with some of his claims, mostly in the area of the anti-cancer mind. I do agree with other of his claims. The relationship of the increase of cancer to changes in food production seems clear, for instance. The research related to exercise seems pretty black and white. In fact, when asked, both my oncologist and my breast surgeon claim that the one lifestyle choice everyone should make to greatly reduce their odds of cancer or recurrence is to exercise an hour a day.

Yet, there is no way I can feed my family totally organic. We can make some wiser choices, but there's no way we can go totally organic. Do I cancel my kids' soccer and use that money for organic food? Do I not pay my medical bills to buy every single recommended supplement?

Once again, the House is out there, and it will win at the game of life. So I have to work with what I've got. To make the choices I can make, when I can make them. To play smart in all areas of life. But I have to have fun at the game. To enjoy my life at much as possible. To balance living in the moment with looking toward the future. Because that's all I really have: this moment, this game, and what comes next.

So, yes, in a lot of ways, life is like Vegas.

No comments: