Complete

Cancer is completing my life, making it whole.  It’s a strange thing to say, isn’t it?  Most would say that cancer, the terminal kind, is truncating and destroying their lives.  For a long time, especially in the beginning of this cancer journey, I felt that way too, but no longer.  It all makes sense now.  Cancer and even congenital blindness make sense now.  The “Why?” question I’ve spent my entire life asking and which I never thought I would be able to decipher, at least not in this life, has a credible, tangible answer now.  All the suffering and all the joy, all the tears and all the laughter, from the moment of my birth to my very last breath, a life that has seen more than its fair share of excruciating pain as well as spectacular achievements, I understand it all now.  I have found the meaning and purpose I have desperately sought my entire life.  And that is an incredible, beautiful, glorious thing to be able to say.  No one, and certainly not I, could ask for more than that in one lifetime, as brief as it may be.

You see, I secured a huge book deal with the very prestigious publisher, Random House, in which this blog will, in the hands of the finest editors in the world, be transformed into the memoir I always dreamed of publishing.

Can I say that again to dispel the surrealism of what is in fact real?  I secured a huge book deal with the very prestigious publisher, Random House, in which this blog will, in the hands of the finest editors in the world, be transformed into the memoir I always dreamed of publishing, except maybe not the whole cancer part, but I will take it anyway.  It turned out that the cancer bit was a necessary part of my story.  This blog, everything I’ve written and now this book would not have been possible without all the pain and suffering and the insights and lessons that have resulted therefrom.  Here is a link to a Publisher’s Weekly article that includes a blurb about my-as-yet-untitled memoir at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair, if you want evidence.

It came unexpectedly, unbidden in the final months of my life, the many pieces magically and even miraculously falling into place, as if moved by divine forces, manipulated by the invisible hand of God, those forces of good of which I have written in the past that have always somehow protected me and made me powerful, even at my weakest, in the face of those forces that would do me harm.

This part of my story began two years ago, when after I read a series of articles about a colon cancer patient from Mississippi published in Esquire, I was compelled to leave a public comment on the final installment of the series, something I had never done and haven’t done since.  The series recounted the story of Stephanie Lee and the two writers who befriended her and gave her access to the cutting edge of medicine.  One of those writers, Mark Warren, ultimately became her medical proxy as she was dying, at her request.  I was so touched by the compassion of these men and told them in this comment that I thought they exemplified the best of humanity, something I had personally come to witness myself since my diagnosis two years prior and bearing witness to that kind of humanity had humbled me to the core.  My comment was not long nor do I think it was very profound, but, for some reason, Mark reached out to me and friended me on Facebook.  Of course, I didn’t recognize his name when I received the friend request because I hadn’t paid attention to the names of the authors of those articles.  I get tons of Facebook requests, which I generally just accept.  Mark then sent me a message and asked to meet for lunch.  He lives in New York City, so that was easy enough.

Thus began a friendship that would change my life, as friendships tend to do, but this one in ways I could have never imagined.  Mark was still grieving Stephanie’s loss and I believe that he needed to talk to me, that in me he found some kind of comfort, someone who understood the disease and what it is like to live under its shadows.  He is older than I am, avuncular, a very sensitive, thoughtful, forthright man who does not run from talking about the hard and uncomfortable things.  Immediately, I saw that we had something big in common – we both love stories, people’s stories.  We are fascinated by people and what moves them.  I thought it was so cool and enviable that he got to talk to all kinds of people as part of his job, see into their lives, learn from them.  In another life, I would have done what Mark did and does.  He was at the time the executive editor at Esquire, number three in line, right after the editor-in-chief and deputy editor-in-chief.  He had been at Esquire for nearly 30 years.

Throughout the next couple years, we would meet for breakfast and lunch from time to time.  I asked him whether he thought I could write a book, something separate from the blog.  He was always encouraging, telling me that I had a natural voice, something that many writers struggle their entire lives to find.  The praise, coming from him, meant a lot.  But I didn’t have it in me to write a book.  I didn’t have the time or energy to write a book on top of the blog.  Writing for the blog was easy and it was enough; the subjects of each post came effortlessly to me as I went through my life with cancer; the blog was my much needed avenue of release.  A book was too hard, although I wanted it.

Then, in July, after the scan results that kicked me off the most promising of clinical trials, as I went about seriously putting my affairs in order, I started thinking about my blog and what would happen to it after I was gone.  I asked Josh to find an editor after my death, pay him if necessary, and have him turn my blog into a book, and then try to get it published.  I was clear; no self-publishing.  It could be a small publisher, but I wanted a legitimate publishing house.  At least, that way, my girls would have a real book to hold in their hands, something they could easily turn to when they were missing me and wanting to hear my voice.  I had asked Mark before giving my instructions to Josh whether he thought there would be a market for such a book.  Mark said absolutely.  He also asked to come see me.

Over tea and pastries, we talked about the potential book in earnest.  He said he could be my editor.  A year ago, his world had been turned upside down when the editor-in-chief of Esquire of 19 years, David Granger, was unexpectedly fired by new management.  Along with him went much of the senior staff, including Mark.  Since then, Mark had been freelancing, working on a big book, but now that project was done and he had time.  While I recognized how opportune his firing from Esquire and the completion of a major project could be for me, I was hesitant.  I told him we were friends and I didn’t want to take advantage of that friendship and perhaps our friendship would make him not a good candidate for the job.  He said, he would read my blog from beginning to end and then give me his professional opinion as to whether he could or should do it.  It was at this meeting that he first made mention of Andy Ward, editor-in-chief at Random House.  Andy had at one point been at Esquire too but had long since moved on.  He and Mark were friends and still worked on projects together.  More importantly for me, Andy had been the editor of the bestselling When Breath Becomes Air, the memoir of Paul Kalanithi, a young and brilliant neurosurgeon who ultimately succumbed to lung cancer.  Mark said he would mention me to Andy.  Great, I said.  Everything seemed so up in the air and hypothetical then that I didn’t get very excited about any of it.

Of course, I knew about When Breath Becomes Air.  Paul Kalanithi had published two essays in a Stanford publication and the New York Times that had gone viral.  I had read both and had been blown away by the beauty of his writing.  It was intimidating.  I was afraid to read the whole book for fear that I wouldn’t be able to write after that.  But after talking to Mark, I thought it was time to read the book.  I had come to a point in my grieving process where I desperately needed guidance on how to accept my impending death, how to confront it with grace and dignity, how to find meaning out of my crazy life.  So I read.

His writing was as breathtaking as I remembered.  Within the pages of his words, instead of guidance, I found permission to die.  His intent no doubt was not to grant such permission, which is an extraordinarily personal thing, but that is what I found.  In some ways, we had things in common, in addition to a cancer diagnosis.  We knew the same people.  We ran in the same educational circles, although he was a couple years younger than I.  His parents were immigrants.  Beyond that though, here was this neurosurgeon, who hailed from Stanford, Oxford and Yale, a literary genius of the highest order, a man who saved lives with his skilled hands and who would have saved more lives with both his hands and his scientific research.  His was a life that was and would have been important and meaningful and far-reaching, much more so than mine is or could ever be.  But he died and more quickly than I after diagnosis.  He too fell victim to this disease.  And if it happened to him and he could accept his diagnosis and death with the pragmatism that comes with being a doctor and the grace that comes with being a deep thinker, then I could certainly do the same.  He died, as great as he was and would have been.  So, it was okay for me to die too.

But the guidance on how to die wasn’t really there.  I came to the end of the book and wanted to know what happened during the next and final eight months of his life.  His book was incomplete because he died and he didn’t have time to write more.  I guess that was the point.  Much of what he wrote was about the beginning of the cancer journey; all of those emotions and thoughts he described, I understood, but I wanted more from him.  And if I wanted more, I knew that other readers wanted more.  Ultimately, it was the epilogue, written by his wife, a wonderful writer in her own right, about her husband’s last days that I found most enlightening.  It was clear to me after reading When Breath Becomes Air that there just might be a place for my work in this world.

Shortly before Labor Day, Mark came back to visit me.  He had finished reading my blog from beginning to end, which was no small undertaking!  He told me first that Andy had offered him a job as the next executive editor at Random House, and he had accepted.  I was thrilled for him.  Then, he told me that he wanted to collaborate with me and edit my book and push it through at Random House.  He could not guarantee that Random House would want the book, in which case, he would work to get it published at another publishing house, which he was sure would happen.  I was ecstatic.  How could I say no to this?

After that, everything began moving very quickly.  The week after Labor Day, on a Tuesday, Mark brought his agent to meet me, with the hope that his agent would take me on as a client.  If I was going to have a book published, I needed a literary agent to represent my interests.   His agent was David Granger, the former editor-in-chief of Esquire of 19 years.  I started freaking out, knowing that this man, whose firing the year before had generated all kinds of buzz in the media and of whom numerous extensive articles have been written, was coming to my home.  He knows all manner of celebrities in the world; it comes hand-in-hand with being editor-in-chief of a big magazine for 19 years.  Anyhow, he came with Mark.  Mark, who had been to my apartment many times and who knows my no-shoe rule, prompted David to take off his shoes the moment he stepped inside.  I was mortified.  Here was this very important person taking off his shoes in my home!  And Chipper, the dog, was going nuts.

David, always dressed impeccably in his suits, was so unassuming that I would have never guessed he was a big shot if I didn’t know.  He described my writing as majestic and lyrical.  It was incredible to hear.  He then started asking me about what kind of financial package I had in mind.  I said, I had ever thought for one second about a financial package.  We talked about whether to conduct an auction or go directly to Random House.  In the interest of time, and because of Mark’s imminent role at Random House and its ties to When Breath Becomes Air and their relationship with Andy, it made sense to go straight to Random House to give them a preemptive offer.

That Friday, both men came back out to Brooklyn to meet Josh for the first time over lunch.  I had made it clear that after my death, Josh would be the final decision maker when it came to matters related to my book so it was important for them to meet him and for him to be involved in all the important discussions.  Now, there was a person other than me who could corroborate all the crazy happenings.  By the following Monday, in less than a week, David had spoken preliminarily with Andy, had put together the proposal and sent it to Andy.  The proposal, which was basically a letter from David to Andy about me with excerpts from my blog, was absolutely amazing; it made me cry.  David gave Andy a one-week exclusivity period, meaning that Random House had to respond within the week.  I was so anxious.  The following Monday, David told me that Random House was firming up their offer.  Over the next couple days, Andy and David negotiated a six-figure advance for North American rights to publish my book.  I don’t care about the amount of the advance because I need the money, but as David told me, one wants as big an advance as possible because it indicates the publishing house’s commitment to and belief in your work.  Even at the number Random House initially proposed, it was clear that their commitment and belief was very strong.  They think that I can follow in the footsteps of When Breath Becomes Air.  By the end of the week, we had come to an agreement on the final number and the deal was official.  It was absolutely unreal, crazy, unbelievable, amazing, incredible, euphoric; there are not enough adjectives to describe how it all felt.

Some people with whom I have shared the news respond, I supposed based on the strength of my writing, with, “I’m not surprised.”  But I am.  Things like this don’t happen to normal people.  It isn’t easy to get published.  The stars had to align, and that was completely out of my hands.  I have dreamed of being published for at least ten years, but it often involves pursuing many agents and then, if you’re lucky enough to get an agent, more time is spent finding a publisher after much rejection.  It doesn’t happen like this, where people and things are just falling into your lap.  And six-figure advances for a first-time, unknown writer, never!  International publishers have also started to make offers.  Last week, I accepted a six-figure offer from a U.K. publisher.  The rest of the world tends to follow the U.K., I’m told.  I’ve also accepted offers for publishers in Holland and Brazil.  We expect more offers to come in from other countries.  This kind of international interest at this early stage is also unusual, I’m told.  My story is also being pitched to movie and TV directors and executives, but that part is all very remote at this point.

That Friday afternoon, as I was receiving chemo and experiencing an allergic reaction that was sending my blood pressuring to 190/119 and the nursing staff into a frenzy as they shot me up with Benadryl and Demerol, Andy sent me the following email, entitled “Welcome to Random House”:

Dear Julie,

I just wanted to reach out to you and say (a) how honored we are to be publishing you, and (b) how blown away I was by the power, beauty, and honesty of what you have written. I don’t have words yet to describe how I felt while reading your letter to your kids. I tried to express it, and I can’t – at least, not adequately. I guess I can say is that I have been thinking about it ever since. My wife and kids have read it, too. You have the soul of a writer, and I can’t wait to meet you and get to know you. Publishing books like this, writing like this, is why I got into this business in the first place. One of the great pleasures of this job is publishing books we love – and, as it happens, some of those books actually *matter*. Not all of them, but some of them. Yours will be one of them. Thank you for trusting us with it, and I very much look forward to seeing you on Tuesday.

Andy

I have the soul of a writer.  My book will “matter”.  It was all for this.  I cried then for everything that has ever happened to me, including the violent chills that had just racked my body not an hour before, for this incredible life that has brought me to this place.  I shed tears of awe and incredulity and joy and gratitude and wonder and humility and relief and understanding.  Blessed understanding.

In Mark’s, Andy’s and David’s masterful editorial hands, this blog in the form of a book will become something different, something more powerful that will speak to not just cancer patients but anyone who has suffered and struggled in their lives.  The book will not be simply a compilation of my blog posts; it will be a memoir that tells my story that spans so many worlds, from cancer to blindness to Vietnam to immigration to motherhood, in whose pages I hope its readers will find solace and comfort and themselves.  The bulk of the work to be done will be Mark’s from here on out, for I have little left to write.  As Mark told me, “You’ve spent the last four years writing a book.  Congratulations.”  I trust Mark implicitly.  I know he will do right by me.  How lucky I am to have such an amazing editorial team.  I feel relief, knowing that were I to die tomorrow, my work will live on, that they will shepherd it into a beautiful final product that will live on long after I am gone.

And yes, this book will be published posthumously.  This is my intention and my desire.  Its true power lies in that posthumous publication.  I want Josh, with Mark’s help as necessary, to write the epilogue.  I want them to share with the world the experience of my death and how he, Josh, and the girls cope with my death in the short term.  I will entrust this blog also to Josh and Mark once I can no longer write.

That being said, I want to live as long as I can to see the editorial process, to come up with a title for the book, to even approve the book cover.  I want to do as much publicity ahead of time as possible before I become too ill.  There’s talk of me doing interviews, a TED talk, a New York Times op-ed, etc.  There is nothing concrete yet.  To that end, all treatments now are geared towards me being able to do what I need and want to for the book.  I’m undergoing radiation next week to deal with the painful tumor on my abdominal wall that continues to grow despite the chemo.  The last scan, to my shock, showed overall stability with a couple areas of growth.  My oncologist thinks I should continue, which I reluctantly agreed to do.  It was then that I got the allergic reaction.  I went to see an allergist last Friday, who deemed that while my reaction was unpleasant, it was not a histamine-induced reaction and therefore not life-threatening and that I should be able to just power through with more Demerol.  Great.  So, I have treatment later this week.  Whatever it takes to be around to work on the book, right?

Josh, who is so proud of me and so excited, is not one to stand in the spotlight.  So the book makes him a little uncomfortable.  He fears having to grieve publicly.  I understand.  He will want to do whatever it takes to publicize and market my book out of a sense of duty, but it is not a role he will come to naturally.  I’ve told him again and again that he doesn’t need to do anything he’s not comfortable doing.  I want to take as much as possible off his shoulders.  In our first meeting at Random House with the various important people who will be involved in the production and marketing of this book, those very important people conveyed the same message to Josh.  But if he chose to do, for example, an interview on the Today show, there would be a team of people to prep him for those types of media coverage.  (Again, can you believe this???)  Random House is amazingly supportive and enthusiastic about this book.

I am a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, an immigrant, a cancer patient, a lawyer and now a writer, about to leave a legacy few ever manage to do.  I lived always with good intentions and a good heart, although I’m sure I have hurt people along the way.  I tried my best to live a full, rewarding life, to deal with the inevitable trials and tribulations with grace and to emerge with my sense of humor and love for life intact.  That’s all.  And this is where I am now.  Even though I’m dying at the age of 41 and leaving my precious children behind, I’m happy.  My life is complete, and in no small part, I have to thank cancer for that.  No one could ask for more.

113 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jarrett
    Mar 28, 2018 @ 05:08:06

    Reblogged this on Site Title.

    Reply

  2. Trackback: CANCER FIGHTING – ogaalka24
  3. creativeaudrey
    Mar 28, 2018 @ 14:58:06

    Sad and touching!

    Reply

  4. Celestial
    Mar 28, 2018 @ 17:48:52

    Excuse me while I create a man-made river with my tears. In short, Julie has taught me that death, more often than we realize, can offer life. What a strong, courageous, beautiful soul. Thank you Julie (& family), for being brave for us.

    Reply

  5. doesitevenmatter3
    Mar 29, 2018 @ 02:39:10

    Julie,
    I am so sorry you lost your life to cancer.
    I will keep your family in my thoughts and prayers.
    I found out almost 3 years ago that I had cancer. Not sure what my future holds.
    But, as I fight and strive to stay positive I will keep you in my heart for encouragement.

    Reply

  6. prabalcherikal
    Mar 29, 2018 @ 09:37:17

    It would have been so hard but in fact courageous to write so beautifully when all is coming to an end . BRAVE WOMAN

    Reply

  7. Hannah J. Nelson
    Mar 30, 2018 @ 01:46:57

    I love this❤️ The last few sentences were so captivating

    Reply

  8. zeinswords
    Apr 02, 2018 @ 08:15:22

    This is so touching…

    Reply

  9. gregjustice123
    Apr 02, 2018 @ 12:38:18

    Today is the first day I had the courage to read Julie’s blog. I lost my wife to brain cancer (glioblastoma multiforme) 2 years ago after a 4-1/2-year struggle. Sixty Minutes followed our family’s journey (google Nancy Justice/60 Minutes) after the tumor recurred and Nancy was accepted into a cutting edge drug trial at Duke University.

    Then, believe it or not, only 2 months after Nancy’s passing, I was diagnosed with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). I had a lesion in my left lung, it was in the lining around my lungs, on my chest wall, and I had a lesion in my intestines. The first PET scan revealed the cancer had infiltrated just about every lymph node in my body cavity and neck. The doctor said I would never be in remission (only 4 out of 100 survive stage IV NSCLC 5 years) but perhaps they could treat it as a chronic disease. Meaning, I suppose, we could buy a little more time with chemo.

    So if you’ve stuck with me this long, you’re probably thinking, “Poor guy!”

    But I can assure you, if you knew how much love I’ve experienced and how deeply I’ve lived in the time since my wife’s diagnosis, and then through my illness, your pity would turn to envy.

    I learned to love unconditionally, deeply, holding nothing back during my wife’s battle. Parts were hard, excruciating, and terrifying, true, but through love and faith, those hard times were transformed into gifts, that as I look back, I cherish.

    Nancy showed no fear, she battled valiantly, and never complained, not even once! I had a sterling example how to live through her, so I was as prepared as a person could be when I was diagnosed.

    After my diagnosis, I remember family and friends coming to the house and preparing a big dinner during a particularly rough round of chemo. I was fairly certain I had only months to live. But as I lay on the couch watching everyone interact, I thought, if a guy had to go, this was certainly the way to do it.

    I asked God what I had done to deserve this. And not in a bad way, but from thankfulness from the very bottom of my heart.

    Believe it or not, I’m in remission now. I retired, spent precious time with my 2 sons traveling, and remarried. Like Julie, I have a blog on Word Press and you can read about the travels, and mine and Mary’s, my lovely, new bride’s, wonderful love affair in some of the stories I’ve published.

    So if I’ve learned anything, it’s that a devastating diagnosis isn’t the end.

    Like Julie, I’ve found that cancer isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. I would like to encourage those who have recently received a frightful diagnosis not be sucked into thinking life is over. Far from it, it may just be a reminder to wake up and live…and love. Especially, love!

    Reply

  10. ForeverFluctuating
    Apr 04, 2018 @ 07:52:06

    This post just took my breath away. Its just so beautiful. The honesty and sense of clarity of life is just….amazing? Awe inspiring? I don’t know really. It just was not what I wasn’t expecting to read and as a result feel on a random Wednesday morning. Thank you for sharing your story. I’ll will be looking for that book.

    Reply

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