In today's New York Times, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks shares for the first time the news that he has been diagnosed with a form of metastatic cancer that is progressing steadily toward death.
“I cannot pretend I am without fear,” he writes. “But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.”
From his New York Times op-ed:
A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.
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 is a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, and the author of many books, including “Awakenings” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”
Wired contributor Steve Silberman, a friend of Sacks, writes:
I met Oliver when I wrote a profile of him for Wired in 2002. I don't often become friends with the people I write about, but Oliver was so brilliant, wise, and adorably idiosyncratic that I couldn't resist wanting to see him again after the story was out. Since then, we have spent several lovely afternoons together talking while enjoying smoked salmon with smoky Lapsang Souchong tea in his book-lined apartment in the West Village. But I got to know him in a whole new way by spending five years doing research for my own book coming out in August, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.
Over and over again, I would come to some important realization about autism, only to discover that Oliver had gotten there first in his own writing, when no one else was even close. Few people realize, for example, that when Oliver profiled Temple Grandin in The New Yorker -- in the piece that became An Anthropologist on Mars -- autistic adults (other than Dustin Hoffman's fictional character in Rain Man) were still virtually invisible in society, because the diagnosis had only recently been expanded to include adults.
His humane, precisely observed, and compassionate vision of people finding ways to thrive in the face of a broad range of life-changing conditions -- blindness, Tourette's,epilepsy, profound loss of memory -- has not only changed our view of medicine, it has radically expanded our sense of possibility about what it means to be human.