by Ted Chapman
In October of 2007 I was diagnosed with a grade 3 oligo-astrocytoma, a rare form of brain cancer that is virtually always fatal. After a year of brutal treatment, including chemotherapy and radiation, I was told in November of 2008 that the doctor’s had done all they could for me and I likely had “weeks or months” to live. My wife and I decided to move in with my parents in rural southern Ohio so that I could die around family. Months passed and MRI after MRI showed that, despite the lack of ongoing treatment, the tumor was not growing.
Hope is a double-edged sword when battling cancer. You need hope to keep going, but a battle against cancer is full of cycles of hopes raised and dashed. It takes great courage to continue to hope knowing the great probability of disappointment that faces you. It was in the context of these same thoughts that I decided to return to the Playa in 2009 after having missed the previous 2 years. It was my way of committing to believe I would live despite the probability that I wouldn’t.
As the months passed and the Burn approached I found myself increasingly anxious, wondering if my tumors would remain stable or if my hopes would be dashed at the last minute. Each dollar and hour I invested in planning and putting together my ‘burn kit’ represented to me a commitment that I would make it there. I had t-shirts printed saying “I’m not dying of cancer, I am LIVING with cancer”.
Finally the day came when I passed through the BM gates in the late evening. The next morning I went directly to the temple and wrote those same words on the Temple, willing the flames at the end of the week to burn away my fears the the temple. I began to weep then, as I am weeping now, overpowered by the simple thought that life is possible.
I return to the Playa this year for the first time since then. As then, I find myself renewed in my fight, having been diagnosed with a recurrence of my cancer in 2011. My cancer is still here, and still threatens my life every day, but my journey back to the Playa represents a triumph over fear, not by conquering it, but by accepting it, understanding it and embracing it.
Burning man is a culture of giving. I have neither the time, nor the skill nor the ability to create great art installations or mutant vehicles, or to commit weeks to cleaning the Playa or preparing it. I deeply appreciate everyone who does. My gift is the one thing I can give. My gift is hope, and the message that hope is possible and life is possible, even when the odds and the weight of reality tell you it isn’t.