Author Kate Bowler talks with Dr. Vivek Murthy on living with cancer & silver linings



House Calls with Surgeon General podcast is helping people find meaning and joy in life

The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr Vivek Murthy, spoke to Duke professor and New York Times best-selling author Kate Bowler who was diagnosed with stage IV cancer and that ushered her into a world of fear and pain.

The conversation on Wednesday, July 13, was the second of the new podcast titled ‘House Calls with Dr Vivek Murthy’ that has been launched by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The first podcast on June 29 had featured chef and humanitarian Jose Andres. In each episode, Dr. Murthy and his guests explore how they navigate the messiness and uncertainties of life to find meaning and joy. The podcasts that last 30-40 minutes are biweekly, released on Wednesdays.

On his podcast, Murthy carries forward this tradition. Dr. Vivek Murthy started his second podcast by saying: “I’d like to introduce you to Kate Bowler, Duke professor and New York Times best-selling author. We believe conversations can be healing. And today, we’ll be talking about embracing the messiness and imperfection of life. This episode holds truths we all need to hear.”

After being diagnosed with cancer Bowler was living in 60-day increments, her future held no promises. Angry about losing the life she had created, the love of family, friends, and her faith community helped Kate forge a new type of strength— learning to lean on others.

This conversation between the nation’s doctor and Kate Bowler illuminates how we find truth and beauty within the uncertainties of life.

After the exchange of pleasantries, Dr. Murthy steered the conversation towards how Bowler had been during the pandemic. He asked: “It’s been such a tumultuous time for everyone. But what’s it been like for you?”

Bowler replied: “It’s been pretty bumpy, in part because I have like health precarity, because I have to live with chronic cancer. So that’s, I think that’s just kind of always means that my mind and my heart is on all those of us who who get boxed out in a health crisis. On the other hand, it’s also been a time of tremendous creativity because the second that we all had to change the way we do everything. So, I’m a professor. I had to teach online. I had a podcast. All of a sudden I was never meeting with anyone in person. It became a different way to think about community and love and friendship. And strangely, that has meant that I am I’m sort of busier and connected in a different way than I was before. So, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag.”

“It sounds like you found some ways to find silver linings in this difficult time. And this is actually one of the reasons I was so excited to talk to you today is because you know, during these times of uncertainty and pain and loss and grief that many people have experienced over the last two years, I think sometimes these can lead us to darker places, but sometimes miraculously, they can help us find better paths forward and know there’s no one better than you, I was thinking, to talk to you about this because even before the pandemic, you went through an extraordinary and difficult experience where you had to grapple with pain and loss and grief and uncertainty. And I was wondering if you could if you could tell us about that when you were 35 years old, about the diagnosis you received and about how that affected your life,” Dr. Murthy asked.

The question took Kate Bowler down memory lane to a period that had upended her world. “It was very stark before and after in my life. My ‘before life’ was I was trying to be a very shiny professor. I had like a very clear plan of the illustrious life of a professor that I would lead and my many grateful graduate students. And, there was no dramatic health issue in my family. And so when I was all of a sudden the one with stage four colon cancer and wasn’t likely going to survive the year, it really called into question the kind of natural optimism that I had about the idea that my life was always going to be the one that works out. And, it was certainly the area of my intellectual study because I had written this book on the whole idea of “blessed,” that like God will reward you if you have the right kind of faith. And, I had sort of adopted a de facto I work hard. I’m reasonably kind. Surely I deserve, you know, dot, dot, dot…”

Then the reality and realization dawned. Bowler says that she realized that “wasn’t a framework that was going to guarantee me a single thing. And that in life we are promised so little. It really turned my worldview inside out. I realized my job moving forward was to find a way to live with any kind of meaning and truth and beauty inside of a very uncertain life.”

The Duke professor and New York Times best-selling author literally lived her life in installments. “At first, the uncertainty was I only had 60 days to live at a time because I would go in and get scans, and then if it went well, then I would be given the drug for another 60 days. So I really only got two-month windows.” She recounted that the window gradually increased to three months and then to six months.

“But all of it taught me, we’re not guaranteed a future and it is hard to live that way. But, if we know that, I think we can be broken open to other people’s uncertainty and other people’s fear and other people’s pain in a way that I don’t think I would have if I’d been so sure and so confident that my success was guaranteed.”

Dr Murthy guided the conversation expertly to allow Bowler speak about her trials and about navigating through the uncertainty and finding strength.

Bowler said that when life is full of unfixable problems then learn how to find joys that count. “For me, it was gummy worms, dumb flavors of potato chips, having just the friends that drive you to enormous statues. Like I went to the world’s largest outdoor fryer, which is conveniently located near Durham, North Carolina. Finding finding ways that joy could interrupt the monotony of pain, but also just finding a way to feel useful again,” she said.

“Sometimes our work makes us feel valuable and I don’t know, useful when everything disposable about your body and your illness makes you feel useless. So I, I did some writing, I made podcasts. I did things that helped me feel like I could use gifts that I could dig out from inside of myself. And that gave me a sense of dignity that kind of very quickly went away the second that I felt sick. So, work and delight, and realizing I would need a much better account of interdependence were kind of the ways that I made it through those first couple, those first couple years,” Bowler added.

“Wow. It sounds like you had to change or rethink perhaps how you define strength, in a sense. Is that what I’m hearing you say?”: Dr Murthy questioned.

Bowler’s reply put forth a new definition for love. She replied: “I think that’s exactly right. I would always prefer to do things on my own and to be the giver and not the receiver. It made me feel a little ridiculous. Like when you have to get carried to the bathroom or, you know, you can’t really eat the thing they put on your plate. Or, like all the neediness, it felt terrible. It felt like I was kind of using up all of my like the goodwill of the people who love me. And and when you realize you might not be able to, like, pay everybody back, you know, and even up the invisible ledgers, I think that pushed me into a different account of what love is. ”

Dr. Murthy said: “That interdependence that you’re referring to, that it’s so powerful and so tightly connected with love. And I’m resonating with what you said in the beginning, which is that there’s something in modern culture that makes us feel that we are weak if we are interdependent if we somehow rely on others for anything, whether it’s our our entertainment, our sustenance, our security and safety. But that’s just how we are. It feels like an acknowledgment of reality and nature to recognize that interdependence is the nature of humanity and not some sign that we’re somehow not enough.”

Bowler agreed: “Yeah, it’s not like a failure or an aberration. We’re like built that way. Fragile at the beginning. Fragile at the end. Just wonky in the middle.”