My friend Tamás Vincze has written a short book, Eighteen and Cancer, about his experience with cancer. I first saw him write about his experience in a blog post last year, and given that he decided to also write a short book about it, and given that it's a disease that will touch many of us in one way or another, I thought I'd also ask him a few questions to post publicly here. As you'll probably be able to tell from his replies below, Tamás is a learning machine, and there wisdom in his answers and recommendations that also go beyond the topic of the book.
To start, can you discuss what drove you to write the story about your battle with cancer?
Why write a book about my cancer story? Especially well after 10 years? Good question. I must have asked myself that a thousand times.
During the early part of 2016, I read Peter Barton’s story in a book titled Not Fade Away, which he wrote with Larry Shames. It details the story of Peter who after retiring in 1997 at the age of 46 from the world of media and business (he worked for John Malone), to spend more time with this family, unfortunately passed away in 2002 after a battle with stomach cancer. It is a gem of a book about the shortness of life and inspired me to start thinking about my own story and how might I tell that.
I always enjoyed journaling and keeping notes. The process of having thoughts crystallized on paper is very valuable. I kept piles of notes in different places, a lot about what cancer meant to me, and to be honest it was getting a bit out of control keeping track of it all. Writing a short book seemed like a good way to summarise everything.
In your book, you described the process of waiting for the doctors to give you the plan to help you fight your cancer as if you were "awaiting the verdict from a judge, feeling hopeless, lost and helpless." I'm guessing you also felt a little like that when you were initially awaiting the results of your scans, and then later as you were awaiting to the results of your post-chemotherapy scans. Can you talk a little bit about how you were able to get through those feelings, get back to focusing on the present moment and, as you put it in the book, have a better dialogue with yourself?
First, it was pure agony. Every piece of mindfulness, spiritual and religious teacher and book tells you that life happens here in the present. It is the truth and it is great advice but when you are in a terrifying situation that is the last place you want to be. So much fear, so many unknowns with my life and health at risk. The past or the future can seem way rosier than the present and it is easy to let your mind wander.
But the more I sat with the fact that I have cancer, this is my reality, this is happening whether I like it or not, day by day it became easier to accept it. The magic pill (or the ‘how to’) is acceptance and surrendering but unfortunately it’s a process and doesn’t happen overnight. What I later learnt is that there was so much value in staying present. Often we need something extreme to catch our attention, shake us out of our comfort zone and centre us. Cancer at the age of 18 definitely did.
There are two books from Michael Singer that I found great on this topic, which I’d highly recommend: Untethered Soul and the Surrender Experiment. Both blew my mind when I read them many years after cancer.
Given all the things you've learned since you got the initial diagnosis in 2003, what do you think you know now that, had you known it back then, maybe would have helped you get through those initial feelings a little easier at the time, even if the help would have only been a minor improvement to the difficult situation you faced?
For sure, that I’m not alone in this. It might sound strange but cancer is a team sport (much like writing a book). It sounds very heroic to say “I’m fighting cancer” but the truth is nobody does it solo. I was reluctant to accept this. For instance I never let anyone visit me while I was in the hospital going through chemotherapy (truthfully it’s a terrible place to invite guests) but in hindsight it was really dumb and I'm not sure what I was trying to prove.
Cancer takes a huge toll on your life and having a great support group of friends and family is crucial. Technically speaking you still have to go through chemotherapy yourself but knowing that you are not alone makes the whole process much easier. My lesson from this was: let others in your life – talk, share, laugh or cry but do whatever it takes to surround yourself with a great group of people.
Asking for help or support is not a sign of weakness; rather it’s a strength. I learnt that if I tried to do everything myself I’d make myself miserable.
Can you discuss a little of what you learned about ego and the desire for control during this time? As you mention in the book, ego can mean different things to different people with different beliefs, but what did you learn about how ego can affect one's thoughts and behavior?
Marianne Williamson, whom I greatly admire, has many great ways of describing the ego but here is one that I particularly like (it’s paraphrased): “The ego is the one who sets you up for failure then punishes you for having made that mistake.”
A discussion about ego could turn into a whole interview, so I’ll keep this short. The more I was able to sit with my having cancer the more I could see that the initial resistance of not being able to look at it objectively or accept it came out of some version of fear. The fear of the unknown. The fear of giving up control. To me ego is just that, a feeling or behaviour driven by fear. Ego kept me trapped in the past (and comfort zone) or focused on how much I’d rather be somewhere else, while I was having cancer in the present. It’s a dangerous game. Often it totally clouded my judgment and lead me to make many mistakes, which I detail in the book.
Ultimately the question I had to ask myself was what did I tie my self-worth to? Was it some lie I told myself about the importance of this false sense of control or was it being able to honestly see my situation and the truth? If it was staying in control then what happened when that went away? It was an eye-opening realisation, especially so young. Healing had to be my main objective, not staying in control (whatever that really meant). The good news was that I certainly didn’t have all the knowledge of how to get there so it allowed me to be curious once again and open to new ideas. It was a shift in perception.
As the legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson put it my ego had to be benched. What I learnt is that once I let go of this desire to control how something should happen I allowed in all the other possibilities I couldn’t even have imagined in the first place.
You unintentionally found your way to meditation and mindfulness throughout your journey. Can you talk a little about how these helped you along the way, and how you continue to utilize them today?
It ties back to your first question a bit about staying in the present and meditation is one method that works for me. While I was going through cancer I accidentally discovered a very simple technique of just paying attention to my breath to anchor my mind and not let it run wild. Back then I only used it around the time of chemotherapies but about 10 years ago I started a regular daily practice and for the last few years I’ve been practicing Transcendental Meditation, which is a mantra based meditation.
Can you talk about the role gratitude played in helping you through cancer? And did what you learn about gratitude during the toughest of times affect the way you live your life today?
That if you can’t find a way to be grateful for what you have you are guaranteed a miserable life. It was hard to see it that way but even in the most trying days I had small things to be grateful for: today was a new day, I still had a chance to keep on fighting, there was one less chemotherapy session left once the current ran it’s course, there was a cure for my disease and so on.
It’s actually not that difficult but we often make it complicated. We often think that we need more than what we have but it’s a lie. Having perspective helps and cancer definitely gave that to me. There is no such thing as a bad day, it’s all relative. The mental model I now run when something goes wrong is simply ask myself if I can die from this. Usually (…almost always), it’s not and then I move on. It ties a bit to mindfulness – being content here in the present. Everything else flows from that.
In a September podcast, Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the biography on cancer (The Emperor of All Maladies) mentioned that about 1 in 2 men and about 1 in 3 women will get cancer in their lives, and also recommended the article by Stephen Jay Gould titled "The Median Isn't the Message." So given that a significant number of people reading this will be touched by cancer in one way or another throughout their lives, and as a final question, are there any other books or other resources in addition to your own book that you could recommend to readers?
I’ve read a lot of books about cancer but most inadvertently ended up turning into a misery memoir, which I was conscious to avoid when writing my own. Not too many books talk about what happens in your mind when facing something so serious. How do you process the news of cancer? How do you get out of the feeling of hopelessness that’s there initially (for some it stays for the entire journey)? These, amongst others, were some I was trying to answer in this short book.
I guess it won’t surprise you that I’m recommending books along those lines, where I think there are concrete takeaways one can apply in their lives. The few that I thought were great are Not Fade Away (the book I referenced above), When Breath Becomes Air (this is extremely well written and I read it in one go), Dying to Be Me (about a near death experience) and the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying (you’ll stop wasting time after reading this).
One area that I am very interested in is diet and nutrition post-cancer. The area is still under-researched but there is often a lot of conflicting analysis and recommendations. Some of the people I’ve been following on this topic are William Li of the Angiogenesis Foundation, Dom D’Agostino or Michael Greger. I know that it is a very emotional topic for many of us, and I’m not recommending any particular approach, but highly encourage everyone to read about it because it can possibly play a large role in prevention as well.
Besides the books, if I could make one request of your audience, whom are somehow affected by cancer, it would be to talk to current or former cancer patients. There is so much value in these conversations that you simply won’t get from reading a book. If I can be of any assistance please feel free to reach out: you can find me here.
Finally, I’d like to thank you Joe for this interview and acknowledge you for the value (no pun intended) you bring to this intellectually curious community. I really appreciate you finding great and useful interviews, articles and posts and bringing these to our attention.
You can find out more about the book on the website HERE. And you can purchase it on Amazon HERE. If you like the book, consider leaving a review, as customer reviews can be a big help for writers, especially first-time authors like Tamás.
Tamás also asked me to include some information on where 10% of book sales will go, and provided me with the following:
10% of the net proceeds from the book sales will go to support the amazing mission of Bátor Tábor (“Camp Courage” in English), a philanthropic organisation in Hungary where I was born, that runs therapeutic recreation camps for cancer-afflicted and chronically ill children and their families.
Take a few minutes to watch this video and get an insight into their great work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmRkvnasfZk
Link to their website: www.batortabor.com