Dances With Death

by Al Siebert, PhD

THRIVEnet Story of the Month - November, 1996

Life changing events can happen to anyone, at any time. At age 43, Michael Blake, author of the acclaimed book Dances With Wolves, was on the brink of success. In 1988, this "success" arrived after more than 20 years work on the novel: it was published and Kevin Costner bought the film rights. Shortly after that, Michael moved to Arizona, awaiting the beginning of the film work on Dances With Wolves.

One night during the filming, Michael awoke in a pool of sweat. "I was more mystified than alarmed." Like most people, he had had occasional bouts of fever throughout his life, but he felt this time was different. He didn't feel sick. He felt fine.

After filming was completed, he was concerned about the continuation of the night sweats, but did not take any action until the following March when he felt a buzz off and on in his right arm. He went to see a doctor and returned with the diagnosis of Hodgkin's disease. "I did not think about dying at first. I wasn't sick, and my nature was already conditioned to overcome adversity. But the irony was there: My star as a writer had begun to rise while my physical self had begun to sink."

Michael began a therapy of surgery (removal of the spleen), and radiation. This was a success, but by the end of 1990, even though Dances With Wolves had hit Number 1 on the bestsellers list, he said he "looked and felt like walking wreckage." So he began a physical fitness regimen including horseback riding and dancing in his living room to rock 'n roll music.

Just when he thought he was coming back, and after he had won an Oscar for his work on the film, he found himself once again in the operating room. In January 1992, surgeons removed part of a rib and gathered tissue samples. This time he was clean.

In September of that year his left arm swelled up and wouldn't go down. The cancer was back. This time, a six-month chemotherapy treatment was used as his body was already saturated with radiation. "I could never have anticipated the devastation my body would now endure. During those six months I often thought to myself that death would be preferable to what I was giving up in this latest struggle for life....For the first time in my existence, I felt defeat at every step." This round he reported hair falling out again, muscle atrophy, collapsed veins, a sensation of burning skin, sleeping induced only by narcotics, and every cell feeling sick 24 hours a day.

Treatment was successful. He says:

If cancer has taught me anything, it is that there is no such thing as having "made it" in this mortal world....I do not know how I have survived. Tougher people than I have succumbed, and weaker people have pulled through....Perhaps it was because I hate to give up. Or perhaps it was something as simple as a few words spoken by the great Jack London: "The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them...I shall use my time."

Michael Blake released Marching to Valhalla: A Novel of Custer's Last Days (available online at Book Stacks Unlimited) published by Villard, which will also be made into a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt.

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