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No Death, No Fear: Facing Mortality as a 30-year-old Brain Cancer Warrior

No Death, No Fear: Facing Mortality as a 30-year-old Brain Cancer Warrior

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Name
Courtney Burnett

Age Group (If you are a caregiver/family member please check Caregiver/Family Member)
Adult: 21 and over

Describe your art here - type of art, techniques and materials used, what your art represents and what it means to you.
------Creative Writing Entry Here: Personal Essay and Memoir--------

No Death, No Fear: Facing Mortality as a 30-year-old Brain Cancer Warrior

I am a thirty-year-old physician living and working with brain cancer. My brain tumor journey started in January 2020 when I was studying in Thailand. While there, I began to have strange symptoms and ended up diagnosing myself with a brain tumor. Honestly, the story only gets crazier from there.

Over the next several months, I went through two brain surgeries, six weeks of radiation, and six months of oral chemotherapy for a diagnosis of anaplastic astrocytoma, grade three brain cancer.

Fortunately, my brain tumor occurred in my right frontal lobe, far from any structures that control motor and speech functions. Despite this unexpected surprise, I was able to finish my residency and started work as an internal medicine physician in St. Paul, MN. Even as a physician, a brain tumor diagnosis is confusing, overwhelming, and terrifying. Along the way, I turned to writing to cope with my diagnosis. I started writing a blog on the first day of my diagnosis (www.elephantlotusbraintumor.com). My blog gained an unexpected worldwide following and readers encouraged me to write a book. I’ve published a number of scientific papers in my life, but my first published memoir, Difficult Gifts: A Physician’s Journey to Heal Body and Mind, was published in February 2021.

The words I write are honest, intimate stories of my real-life journey to find happiness and compassion in a crazy and mysterious life. The following personal essay is an excerpt from a recent blog post regarding a topic I find particularly important: mortality.

Much of my writing centers on the core concept of something I’ve come to call a Difficult Gift: a gift that teaches us, motivates us, changes us, and inspires us. Through my own experience, I have found that sometimes, suffering can open a door to happiness, and through dying, we can learn to fully live. In my own life, I use mindfulness practice and Buddhist philosophy to search for the beauty in life’s many difficult gifts.

“Recently, I spent an afternoon in my favorite bookstore. A book from a well-known Buddhist author caught my eye: Thich Nhat Hanh’s No Death, No Fear had a title I could not pass by. I bought the book and started reading immediately. Buddhists generally believe in the concept of re-birth. I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds of Buddhist philosophy here, as I write this story for people of all faiths and also of no faith, but I think a bit of context will help you understand one of the ways I’ve come to view life and how this view has very powerfully helped me cope with own illness and illness in others.

Raised as a Catholic, I grew up learning about the concepts of Heaven and Hell. In most Christian religions, death is looked at as an ending, where the body and soul separate and the soul goes somewhere else, someplace else. I’m not opposed to this idea at all, in fact, it’s a beautiful idea and I fully understand how it helps many people face the idea of death in themselves and loved ones.

The scientist in me, however, can’t help but look at death in more scientific terms. Having studied biology, physics, chemistry, one simple truth has been drilled into me- energy is not created, energy is not destroyed. Energy evolves.

The concept of death leading to nothingness does not fit well in my scientifically oriented brain. As I dove head-first into the philosophy of Buddhism, I came to find that many Eastern religions do not view death in the same black and white way that many Western religions do. The Buddhist viewpoint of rebirth at first sounded crazy to me, but as I read more of the nuanced philosophy behind this, it seemed less of a wild idea of reincarnation and more of a belief in the simple transfer of energy.

When rain falls, does it come from nothing? Of course not. Rain starts as water vapor in a cloud and through condensation, it is transformed into liquid water droplets which eventually become so heavy that they fall as rain. Did the cloud die to become rain? I would argue it did not. The cloud is still above us, even though parts of the cloud evolved into rain. Was the rain born from nothing? Of course not. The rain was always there, it was simply in another form, vapor.

Scientifically, nothing is born and nothing dies. A French scientist named Lavoisier declared, “Rien ne se perd, rien ne se crée, tout se transformé.” Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed. In No Death, No Fear, Hanh notes that this statement by Lavoisier, or the “father of modern chemistry” is actually quite in tune with Buddhist beliefs.

Simply because something is not there does not mean it does not exist. Today may be sunny, but the rain is still there in another form, as water vapor, sitting in clouds above us. When the conditions change, the water vapor will condense and fall onto us as liquid.

When we as humans get sick, when we die, where do we go? Our body is made of energy, small atomic particles we cannot see with the naked eye. When our human body dies, does the energy in us simply stop existing, or does it change forms?

To a Christian, perhaps the energy changes forms into a soul which heads straight to Heaven. To a Buddhist, perhaps the energy changes forms and enters a new body, one not yet born to this world. To others, perhaps this energy leaves the body and enters the universe as atoms of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen which eventually move upwards, landing in a cloud above us which, when conditions are met, create rain.

Those are my thoughts as I sit in bed and reflect on my own eventual death. Or rather, my eventual transformation. I’ve always loved falling asleep to the sound of rain. No death, no fear.”


Please include your age, tumor type and date of diagnosis (patients & survivors only) and let us know how art has impacted your life.
I am a 30-year-old internal medicine physician living and working in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I studied medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL and completed internal medicine residency at the University of Minnesota. I was diagnosed with anaplastic astrocytoma in February 2020. I write a blog at www.elephantlotusbraintumor.com and recently published a memoir: "Difficult Gifts: A Physician's Journey to Heal Body and Mind." I am actively involved in brain cancer advocacy, speaking events, and outreach.

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