Columns Jeffrey Weiss: My Way to the Egress Opinion

How I’m happy despite my brain cancer diagnosis

An old railroad track runs through a central California forest on Dec. 8, 2012. Photo courtesy of Chris Chabot via Creative Commons

(RNS) Last month, doctors discovered I had a brain tumor that is likely to kill me in a year or so. But in spite of the glioblastoma, I’ve been in a better mood every day post-surgery than I’ve been in years.

Am I nuts?

My wife, a registered nurse, says maybe.

But I think I’m not totally. And one reason I’m pretty happy may be because of the basic Jewish understanding of life and death planted in me by my Dad, who was also happier than one might think in the years before he died at 92.

I’m not likely to hit 92. I turn 62 in a couple of weeks. Probability of me hitting 63 is pretty good. Hitting 64, probability is not good. Hitting 65 is lottery-ticket odds at the moment, the medical information says pretty clearly.

And yet, I wake up with a smile.


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Even during the weeks planning my coming treatments — efforts to give me as much time as they can — I’m thinking about other things I’ll try to do in whatever time I have. And things I may yet accomplish.

My doctors are a bit, um, confused. More often than not, I’m told, patients new to glioblastoma need medication to help them deal with depression. And visits to a psych expert.

Why not me? Partly it could be where my tumor was. Lower left section of the brain, near the skull.  Surgery was very successful. But the pressure did shift some of my brain network. Maybe the re-wiring left me oddly happy?

But I think it’s more about what I realize post-op.

Unlike a few months ago, when I had to plan how to live with the possibility of getting through another 30 years (Mom is 92 now and doing very well, so you could see my actuarial odds had been high — though it turns out they may be a bit like the predictions of a Hillary Clinton victory), I no longer have to do many things I did not want to do.

Yippee! My wife and I have no kids, so my level of responsibility is relatively low. We’d been fiscally responsible for many years and have some bucks in the bank. And we have reasonably good health insurance.

And this kind of brain cancer has its own odd attribute: While it’s almost always fatal, glioblastoma doesn’t usually create terrible or painful effects until it’s pretty close to taking someone to the Egress.

But for me, there’s also a Jewish perspective that I owe to my father.

Sherburt Sheldon Weiss was born in Ohio on Dec. 31, 1917. Both of his parents were immigrants from Hungary. He was raised Jewish. His mother kept kosher. He learned to read Hebrew and never forgot. As an adult, he took Jewish education classes.

While his belief in the specifics of Jewish theology faded as he got older, some of his attitudes stayed very much the same. He was amazingly honest because that was the right way to be. He opposed racism in direct ways because that was the right thing to do.  He loved his family absolutely – but offered criticism when he thought it made sense.

In the week before he died, he talked some about his attitude toward the afterlife. He didn’t not believe in it absolutely. But he told my wife, whose lot in life hasn’t been easy, about what he might do to boost the way God and his minions treat her, if he could. He meant it.

My attitude is a lot like his. Judaism offers a potentially happier attitude toward death than some other faiths. The eternal agony of hell led by Satan has little Jewish support, for instance. Specificity about heaven isn’t much a literal part of most Jewish thinking, either.

How the World To Come may operate has been a matter of lots of discussion and some disagreement over the millennia. But Judaism generally backs doing the right thing in the here and now, no matter what theology one believes.

I’m for all of that! So I have some goals.

I’d mentioned that living three years is lottery-ticket odds. Some people do win the lottery, however. So it’s possible I may get a few years. It’s also possible that new treatments now in clinical trials may work better. If I last long enough, I may get to try some of that.

But I can’t act as if that’s likely, I think. Hope is not bad. Hope is actually central to Jewish teachings. But even hope, to provide what it can and should, needs to be tied to reality.

Dad did a pretty good job with that. Thanks, Dad. Maybe I’ll be seeing you again at some point in the future? Even that thought helps make me happy.

(Jeffrey Weiss is a journalist who covered religion, faith and morality issues for more than a decade. In December, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. He’s exploring how facing the end of life should affect his thinking about beliefs and behavior)

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Jeffrey Weiss

4 Comments

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  • Thank you for writing. My wish for you is to “win the lottery” so that you can try a new treatment now in clinical trials that may work better. But my biggest wish is for your continued happiness.

  • Though as a Christian I have firmly embraced both the doctrine of Hell and that of Heaven, I have never been comfortable in my own skin, i.e. my own spiritual condition. I applaud the author for his upbeat perspective. I would encourage him though to thoughtfully take some time and reconsider eternal potentiallities.

  • I’ve been deeply privileged to be with people as they died or shortly before. With one exception, they weren’t afraid. In fact, when it was clearly inevitable, they welcomed death. That was not because they were suffering in any way, because they weren’t. Also, levels of faith of these people varied greatly, including two of no faith. It seemed to me that the difference was in how they’d lived their lives. The exception was a man who’d fathered and abandoned several children, treated people badly, and really not offered much in the way to positive contributions.

    I recognize that my experiences are not a scientific study, but these were people I knew well due to my work, and I paid attention because I wanted to know what their experience was. It was fascinating, magical and very humbling.

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