Hey There Mr. Expat, You have Cancer in Korea

Death and the Maiden #2

When Mortality Breaks Your Routine

When will this class end? Don’t people realize I have more important things to do this weekend? I need to photograph a band, organize an event, take a trip, plan a vacation, work on my blog, write an article, drink with friends, get laid, go shopping, explore, or apply for a master’s program. Oh hell, maybe I won’t do any of those things.  Maybe I’ll just drink some wine and chill watching Netflix.  Regardless, my life is all about the weekend. Being in Korea is about moving forward or saving money for other parts of my life.  I mean, my full life is ahead of me and this is only a minute, temporary, part of the puzzle. Korea and my teaching job may foot the bills, but my real reason to be here is to grow as a person and use the benefits of this lifestyle to propel myself in a positive direction – or so I thought.

Then, I heard this,

“Brent, let’s review your options for chemotherapy.”

Chemotherapy?  Hold on Doc . . . I came in for a sinus infection. You found a large mass of lymphatic tissue, which I thought you said was an enlarged adenoid. Sure, you mentioned it could be cancer, but you said the chances were low.  Oh . . . the tumor grew in a week while I was on extensive antibiotic treatment?  That’s not good; what should we do?”

And there it was – a small and unlikely taste of death at 30.

Life and Death

None of us are naive enough to believe we are immortal. But, as young adults, how do we actually feel? We tell ourselves we can die. But, most of us don’t think we’ll die tomorrow, next week, or in the next ten years.  Most of us don’t; some of us do.

Death, like advice from our parents, doesn’t fully resonate with us until we experience some aspect of it. Most of us have lived long enough to see some of the wisdom of our parents come to pass.

“I didn’t understand who I was until my late twenties”

“You know things and then you realize things. It’s only after you experience and realize things that you truly know or understand them.”

These pieces of advice are true, but they don’t click until we view our lives in hindsight.  I didn’t think I could learn anything new about myself after 25?  Now that I’m 30, my mom couldn’t have been more correct.  Maybe Otto Van Bismarck summarized it the best when he said, “a wise man learns from the mistakes of others, and a fool learns from his own mistakes.”  If I can be honest, I think most of us are fools.

We have all known since we were young that we were guaranteed two things in life: death and taxes.  As a Christian growing up in the South, I thought I spent more time pondering death than most children my age. Yet, despite all my pondering and discussions about death and the afterlife, I learned more about death in two minutes with my doctor than in a lifetime of abstract thinking:  death is real; death is coming; we are not promised tomorrow; life is unfair; death plays no favorites; it rains on both the just and unjust.  You might say to yourself that you know this, but have you realized it?  I’ve watched other people die, but nothing is the same as feeling death point its finger at you. My perspective on life radically transformed when I learned this vehicle that carries my consciousness might fail me.

Even recently, we lost an English teacher to a hiking accident in Korea. According to his friends, he was an extraordinary expat who touched every life he encountered. They described him as charismatic, kind, and full of life.  He died unexpectedly and I’m certain he had plans for the future.  He, however, taught me a very important lesson. He lived in the moment and for the moment, appreciating every breath and every day.

For far too long, I’ve measured the quality of my life through my aspirations for the future.  My mind has never been focused on the present, but veered toward the day I would become a lawyer, naval officer, writer or photographer.  Some dreams I never attempted, and others were within one bad joke of being accomplished.  The real tragedy, however, was that I never enjoyed what I was doing at the moment.  My self-worth was never based on who I was or what I had accomplished.  Instead, I would often tell strangers my future goals as a way to define myself.  I’ve constantly sacrificed my enjoyment of God-given opportunities and guaranteed moments in life for delusions of grandeur.

Those dreams may never come to pass. My life might be tragically cut short.  If it ends, all I’ll be left with was the time I had. Did I enjoy it, or did I always gaze into the future without appreciating the beautiful, albeit humble moments, within my grasp?

There is nothing wrong with dreams and goals. But at 30, I’ve realized life does not happen the way you plan it.  I still have dreams and goals I will work towards;  I still want to be a writer/photographer, and I still want to continue my master’s degree.  I will never again, however, define happiness through what I may become in the future – that is no way to live life.

Instead of dreading my workweek, I now understand that this is my life.  The quality of my life is determined through how I approach what I have, not by what my life may become in the future.  I’m an ESL Teacher in Korea.  For whatever reason, I have these beautiful Korean children who look up to me and adore me.  I may be under qualified to teach them, but they still deserve my best.  I also owe it to myself to give them my best.  No one can promise me tomorrow, so why not choose to enjoy every moment of fun and torment these children can offer.  Why not approach the opportunity I’ve been given to make their lives better.  If I die, the real shame is not that I was never published in a major magazine, married, or received a master’s degree.  The real shame would be that I wasn’t happy when I was alive.  This happiness begins with a simple choice – a choice to be happy in the moments I’ve been given.  I’ve always known this, but a small brush with death helped me realize it was true.

If you’ve read this far please appreciate and enjoy everything you have.  Don’t be a fool and learn this lesson for yourself.  I am lucky; I’ve only had a cancer scare.  The chances of my tumor being benign are still in my favor.  My doctor only wanted to review my options if cancer was found during my surgery or from my biopsy.  It was enough to wake me up.  Many others aren’t as fortunate, and for them it is already too late.


For the first time since I’ve been in Korea, I combined one of my passions (photography) with something (teaching) that I always thought interfered with my real life.  When I gaze back upon these pictures, it’s obvious my satisfaction, priorities, and joy in life were derived from the wrong places.

And by the way, Kids in Korea are ridiculously cute.  Don’t be fooled by the irony of my title.  I’m even willing to wager my students are cuter than yours.

Kids-1 Kids-2 Kids-3 Kids-4 Kids-7 Kids-8 Kids-9 Kids-10 Kids-12 Kids-13 Kids-15 Kids-16 Kids-17 Kids-23 Kids-24 Kids-26

Teaching Charlie to breakdance.  It's a work in progress.
Teaching Charlie to breakdance. It’s a work in progress.

If you really want to be inspired, watch this video about the last days of Zach.  Only watch this if you are ready for cry.

Zach’s last days

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33 thoughts on “Hey There Mr. Expat, You have Cancer in Korea

  1. Great photos, your kids are adorable! I wish mine would let me take pictures of them but they’re cranky middle schoolers… You are 100% right about living in the moment. It’s something I’ve only realized myself in the last few years, but once I stopped living for the future and started appreciating the present my life changed drastically–and I think it even improved my “future” in the process. I hope you get that lump removed safely and everything is ok!


      1. Great article, it really resonated with me, you are a great writer and photographer! I don’t know exactly what you are dealing with, but please realize there ARE options…please look into Gerson Therapy, raw foods and juices, and probably what will cure you, “Run from the Cure” is a video on youtube you need to watch. I have a relative who had cancer and did chemo and died, wish he had this information. peace.


        1. Thanks for the info. I edited this piece a lot so the cancer thing is a little unclear. I have not been diagnosed with cancer. However, since the tumor grew my doctor covered what we would do if it was malignant. He still doesn’t think it is given the size of the tumor and my current health. It will be removed Tuesday and tested. THanks for reading!


  2. I agree with BIGLANCE that suggested “The Gerson Therapy”. Check out a documentary about it here-

    I enjoyed reading this post. Korea for me started out as an adventure, then it changed to a saving money and waiting for the next big thing, now I am simply enjoying the remainder of my time here.

    One quote that I read a few years ago really changed the way I viewed my life.
    The paraphrase goes something like this:
    “Enjoying the present moment will bring us a happy life. Life is simply made up of a bunch of ‘right nows’, if we aren’t enjoying the present, there will be no happy future.”

    Wishing you the best-
    Fellow Expat,


  3. Thank you for taking the time to post this. This line resonated with me most: “For far too long, I’ve measured the quality of my life through my aspirations for the future.” In a few months, I’ll be separating from the military (the only thing I’ve known for the past 4 years) and making a big transition. I realized, like you said, that I’ve been measuring the quality of my life and the value of who I am by my aspirations for the future. I want to learn to live in the moment more and I appreciate your article a lot! I wish you the best with your health.


  4. I’ve gotta say all I’ve been doing for last few months is thinking about the future as I’m moving back to Canada after almost 12 years in Korea. Lots of planning, working on a Master’s degree, working and generally being too stressed. I’ve got 4 weeks left here, time to live in the present and enjoy my remaining time, thanks for the article, good luck with your health, btw. if you need any exercise advice feel free to hit me up. I strongly believe in exercise and nutrition as two important keys to a good life.


  5. So very true. But it is usually like You wrote – all the sad and bad that happens around us and do not directly touch us – it’s just around us. We may be compassionate or sad to some point but then we just shake if off and go on almost indifferent, but only when it touch us directly – we stop and think: wow… really, me…? And we start to live , reevaluate and appreciate. I am happy to be at the point I am now, though it cost me a lot of pain (no wrinkles though) and trying everyday to make the day as long as possible and worth remembering.
    Wish You the best with Your health, keep going Your way🙂


  6. Brent,
    You said:
    “large mass of lymphatic tissue, which I thought you [the doctor] said was an enlarged adenoid”
    I assume you are having this biopsied. If it turns out to be cancerous, please visit this website:
    This is the ONLY place to find non-biased, accurate info that could save your life. HPV infections in young people are increasing the incidence of “throat” cancers.

    Love your pictures. My husband and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in Korea in the early 70s. Back then we got $75/ month in pay, and we were considered “yangbans” in comparison to our Korean counterparts.

    I hope this cancer scare is nothing.


    1. Thanks, the doctor thinks my chances of cancer are less than 10% now and the cat scan did not show anything in my lymph noids (how do you spell that). So, things are looking good. They are removing it tomorrow and I’ll know a week later what’s up.


  7. I am a church friend of your mom and I really enjoyed this post. So true!! I am praying for you and the surgery and recovery. And I loved the pictures of the kids. The boy with the glasses so reminds me of the Korean student we were link up parents for from my son’s high school a few years ago. He actually just emailed me an update and his picture-it is amazing the similarity in looks. Keep up your writing and photography as it is enjoyed by many.


  8. Wow, just wow. I loved reading this article and the sincerity in it was amazing. I will definitely be thinking of you praying that your tumor is benign. Thank you for being so honest about yourself and while your kids are adorable I think my kiddos might give you a run for your money!


  9. I have to admit your students are cute! but mine are cuter!😛

    How did it go? Did you have surgery? Did everything turn out well?

    You are a great photographer! I wish I was as good as you!



  10. I loved this article…being part way through my second year and starting to wonder if staying was the right decision, I was going through all the same lethargic feelings. But have recently given myself a kick up the back side.
    Here’s to putting life into our days not just days into our life!


  11. I have been reading some of your posts. All of them are wonderful. I dont know what you are going through exactly. But I hope you are doing well now.. take care and get well soon!
    I have just started blogging few days back.So i havent read a lot of blogs yet. Bur I was going through your articles.. Loved the way you wrote them🙂 Keep up the great work..:)


  12. I know how it feels to be told by your doctor that you have cancer. I was diagnosed with cancer last year and underwent treatment here in SK. I refused surgery and chose alternative treatment despite the risk. God is so good, he didn’t allow my condition to get worse. In fact, I am now in complete remission. I agree with everything you said here. Bad experiences are kinda like wake-up calls. They teach us to appreciate and enjoy everything we have. My views on life have changed for the better since my cancer diagnosis. You are more fortunate yours isn’t cancer and you got that wake-up call earlier. I like your optimism. Keep it up! ^^ I will include you in my prayers.


  13. I’m shocked to learned about that cancer scare you had to go through (I haven’t had the time to catch up on my reading of my blogger-friends here, so obviously I’m missing a lot, lol!) but I’m really thankful that you’re okay now. Cheers to long-happy-adventurous life!
    Your photography is simply wow! I hope one of these days you’ll feature a how-to or practical tips on photography to teach aspiring photographers as well.🙂


  14. Thank you for this, it helped me make it through a few rough days here in Korea. Your writing really, really made me feel thankful for what I have and I re-read it when I need a boost. Zach’s videos set it to maximum feels but really helped me rethink how frustrated I can get over nothing some days. Thanks again.


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