Last week, when best-selling author and neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a poignant essay in “The New York Times” revealing that he has terminal liver cancer, an outpouring of emotion and admiration resulted.
Beautiful, sad, inspiring: These words came up repeatedly in news stories and on Facebook and Twitter, and in my own mind.
Sacks, 81, a professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine — and the author of dozens of books and essays on the science behind the human condition — wrote that nine years ago he had been diagnosed with a rare tumor of the eye called an ocular melanoma.
Although radiation and laser surgery to remove the tumor ultimately left him blind in that eye, he was told that only in very rare cases did such tumors metastasize.
“I am among the unlucky 2 percent,” he wrote in the Times.
"I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted,” Sacks went on.
The ocular melanoma was the basis for one of his books, “The Mind’s Eye.”
Sacks also wrote “Awakenings," (the basis for a film starring the late Robin Williams) in which he detailed the experiences of patients as they emerged from a post-encephalitic haze. In “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” he told stories of patients afflicted with perceptual and intellectual aberrations.
Turning his attention back to his future, Sacks wrote, “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude … Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
And this, on how he plans to live his remaining days: “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”
If only we could all live this way.
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