UB professor uses attitude to overcome cancer diagnosis

Philosophy of overcoming cancer


Life and death is just another teaching topic for philosophers.

“If it comes, it comes,” philosophy professors like Jiyuan Yu say.

But what happens when a philosopher is diagnosed cancer?

Yu has discovered that the same philosophical principles he teaches in the classroom at UB apply to his own life, and have helped him keep a positive outlook after a colon cancer diagnosis last year.

“As a philosopher, I’ve been very calm. Doctors find it amazing,” Yu said. “Like Socrates says, ‘What’s important is not to live but to live well.’ To live well means to live happily. Happily, for him, means live virtuously. Now once you get a disease like that you say, ‘Hey, to live virtuously is of course still very important, but to live itself is still important.’”

Cancer has not stopped the philosophy professor and Confucius Institute director from teaching, working on a book and enjoying his life. He has not allowed cancer, whether it be the fear of death or chemotherapy sickness, to define him. He uses philosophy to keep a calm and positive demeanor and he wants to spread that message to other cancer patients and survivors.

A philosopher with cancer

Yu believes that people expect philosophers to react differently to being diagnosed with a severe disease like cancer.

“When a philosopher gets a disease like that people always wonder, ‘What’s the difference?’” Yu said.

But Yu’s initial reaction to the disease wasn’t much different from how the average person would respond.

He felt shock. He felt anger. He asked “Why me?” He said there was nothing bizarre about his lifestyle, as he doesn’t smoke and he only drinks a little bit.

“You never expect that,” Yu said. “There’s no reason. It’s not like I have a special lifestyle. I’m sort of very normal ... So ‘Why me?’”

Although his initial reaction was to question, Yu ultimately decided he would view the cancer as a problem to solve rather than a life-destroying diagnosis.

“Part of the issue is not, ‘Why me?’ The issue is ‘How do I get out of here faster?’” Yu said.

He believes an important part of recovering from cancer is to not give into the disease, to not let it become a part of his identity and who he is. He doesn’t want to see himself as a cancer patient.

“And the best way to do it is you come to work normally,” Yu said.

He took a week off for sick leave earlier this month, but is currently teaching his normal load of two classes, as well as doing administrative work. He said he doesn’t have many side effects from chemotherapy treatments.

Although he said there of course times he feels tired, he overall feels food. Part of that is his mental approach.

“Because you say, ‘Hey, I’m not knocked down. I’m still normal, I can still do these things,’ that helps to get rid of the feeling of being a sick person,” Yu said. “I find that’s very important.”

Yu’s positive attitude is something that his friends have noticed as well. Jorge Gracia, Samuel P. Capen Chair and a SUNY Distinguished philosophy professor, said Yu let him know of his cancer soon after diagnosis, but that the emphasis of the conversation was not “that he had to give up or resign himself to fate.”

“No, he was ready to fight and do what was necessary to beat this illness,” Gracia said in an email.

Yu’s friends see that while cancer can be a difficult illness to cope with, Yu is doing what he can to remain positive.

In fact, Yu is already looking toward using the philosophies of Daoism and stoicism to help others once he recovers from the disease.

“These philosophies try to teach you how to become emotionally controlled, how to become a calm person, a calm individual,” Yu said. “These philosophies not only help me in my own life, but I hope they’ll also help me when I’m recovered. So I can help other survivors or patients with this kind of philosophy.”

‘Hey, what is philosophy?’

Yu has been teaching philosophy at UB for almost 20 years after growing up in China. He’s studied a variety of different schools of thought and philosophers, like Marxism, Daoism, Plato and Aristotle and has written several books.

The professor has spent a huge portion of his life studying philosophy, but the initial decision to analyze thought process and some of life’s biggest questions was not his to make.

In fact, he calls his philosophy career “accidental.”

Yu grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s. He said all universities had been shut down for about 10 years before being re-opened in 1978, a year before he would graduate high school in 1979.

There were millions of high school seniors who had just graduated and were looking for a university to attend in 1979, but there were few universities available. The acceptance rate nationwide for colleges at the time was a slim 4 percent, Yu said.

The odds were not in Yu’s favor, yet he was accepted to attend school. Only there was a catch: he didn’t get to pick his major. His high school teachers picked for him.

“It’s all done by high school teachers without any asking me,” Yu said. “So the school filled me in which university. How [did] they choose philosophy? Because all the departments are listed by order and the first department was philosophy. So the high school teacher put in philosophy as my first choice. At the time I wondered ‘Hey, what is philosophy?’ I was 15 so I didn’t know anything.”

Yu might not have known anything at the time but that all would change. Yu has studied philosophy across the globe, from China to Italy to Canada, and has worked at Oxford University before he transferred to UB in 1997.

Professor Yu

During his time as an undergraduate at the age of 19, Yu wrote a final essay on Plato and won a national award for it. Yu used the award money to invite his whole class to dinner.

That award is partially what drove him to become a teacher.

“You know, that’s very motivational,” Yu said. “And you feel good and then you love Plato more and you start working on Aristotle. Then you really want to become a teacher.”

Yu says that he tries to be motivational to students whenever he can because encouraging students could change their lives.

It’s this attitude that draws students to enjoy having Yu as a teacher.

“For this class specifically, I have no philosophical background,” said Ashley Gormady, a senior in linguistics and Asian studies. “Not only does he make the class engaging and enlightening but like he also tackles it from different perspectives that allow people to appreciate what they’re learning.”

Yu tries to engage his students as a way of making philosophy applicable to everyone, not only those who have interest in the subject.

Yu also impresses colleagues, who note how efficient and creative the professor is.

“I never had to remind him of any deadline or what was expected of him,” Gracia said. “He never tries to upstage a partner. Perhaps as important as these is that he is full of initiatives and creative suggestions. I have experience in this matter because we edited two books together and organized several conferences. I should emphasize that this combination of qualities is rare in the academic world.”

Yu has traveled all over the world and, according to him, could teach pretty much wherever he wanted to. He chooses to stay at UB because of the opportunities it has given him to teach both Chinese and Greek philosophy.

“This is the only place that allows me to do both,” Yu said. “So I feel that it’s difficult to find a place that allows you to do whatever you like to do. And that’s a very important thing, intellectual freedom.”

Yu hasn’t always been so involved in both Chinese and Greek philosophy.

Even though he’s Chinese, Yu used to only write books on Greek philosophy. After years of writing, he realized that the philosophical ideas were similar between ancient China and ancient Greece and decided to combine them.

“By putting them together we can see things that if you treat them separately you won’t be able to see it,” Yu said. “You gain a new perspective, new argument.”

Yu also believes in combining hard work with a good life outside of work, in order to lead a more balanced life.

Outside the classroom

Yu’s hobbies are much simpler than the highly debated topic of philosophy.

He enjoys Peking opera and walking. His hobbies have allowed him to form relationships that aren’t necessarily intellect-based and enjoy a life outside of his work.

“One good thing of learning philosophy is you always have a lot of friends because they like to talk to you,” Yu said. “Philosophy is really part of your life, everybody’s life. Everybody will have some set of questions about their own life, about the puzzles. And they always like to talk to you.”

Yu’s friendly nature makes it easy for him to form relationships with the people around him.

“Jiyuan is one of the most friendly and gregarious persons I know,” Gracia said. “A long time ago I lost count of the many hours I have spent in Jiyuan’s home at dinners and parties. He is always ready to get together and have a good time.”

Yu is currently working on a book bringing together Daoism, stoicism and disease. He said both philosophies are pertinent because both deal with emotions when facing a disaster.

He said both philosophies have a kind of therapeutic value, which he hopes will help others who have also been diagnosed with cancer live positive lives.

John Jacobs is the assistant features editor and can be reached at john.jacobs@ubspectrum.com