I used to be one of those people who picked fights with cancer. I would disconnect cancer from the people it hit by imagining it was a separate entity, and I cursed it as an invader.
For instance, I was so angry when my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer in her early 60s. I remember her delicate scalp with just a few hairs left to decorate her head. I wanted to go to battle (as if my grandmother, with all her life experience and wisdom, needed me to fight it for her). I wanted to literally beat up cancer, without realizing I would have been beating up my grandmother in the process. It was hard for me to accept that her body was falling apart, and that once her body could no longer function, she would no longer exist.
But watching her made me think that if cancer was to ever mess with someone like me, it would be sorry.
Then I was diagnosed with cancer and my perspective suddenly shifted.
When I went through my chemo treatments, I remember looking in the mirror and grabbing chunks of hair from my scalp as they fell on the floor. I thought of my grandma instantly, and about what I had said to myself then — that cancer would be sorry if it ever messed with me. But something felt different when I looked into that mirror. It didn’t make any sense that after hating cancer for so long, I wasn’t able to curse at it anymore. Instead, I felt sad. I did not want to be at ‘war’ with my cancer. I no longer felt like it was a fight or battle. I felt that cancer was part of me. And, having such a strong family history of cancers, in addition to being a carrier of a mutated gene, has made this thinking even stronger in me.
Because I can’t separate cancer from me, I am unable to use military metaphors — identify myself as a ‘warrior’ or put on my ‘pink boxing gloves’ for example. Ultimately, I’d be punching myself — and in a way I already have been punching myself with chemotherapy, radiation, and currently with the Tamoxifen. Obviously, I am trying to kill all the cancer with those things, but in the process of doing so I am also physically and emotionally hurting myself. I don’t want to add more punches.
I realize that, in the end, I am really fighting with myself when I think of cancer as an attacker. These are my cells. They are part of who I am. My body has an expiration date whether I want to accept it or not. And dammit, it’s still hard to accept this! My body cannot be replaced —at times I had wished it could be. I feel I have no control over what it does anymore. This is how it behaves. It hurts itself.
Now this does not mean I don’t hate cancer, or that I would stop treating it. It means I need to accept the things I cannot change to allow myself some level of peace. I’ve learned that I have less control over my life than I thought I did. That’s what makes this situation so difficult. I must learn to go with the flow.
Now, when I think back to when my grandma was ill, it is easier for me to see that it was her time to go. Cancer wasn’t a pre-meditated attack by an intruder. She had no control over what her body was going through. Same applies to the rest of us who desperately look for answers as to “why?” or “why now?” – in our 20’s, in our 30’s, in our 40’s, and so on.
There may be no answer. Accept to know that we are all fragile. Fighting or not, we get hurt. We need to each figure out the best strategy for enduring the punches.
“Where is my Mind” from the movie “Fight Club”
Thanks for putting these thoughts so clearly into words. I haven’t liked the battle and warrior analogies; when people talk about cancer and fighting cancer and I hadn’t figured out why. But you’ve given me a fresh perspective on it.
Rita, many of us dislike the military metaphors. Accepting/letting go is also challenging.
Beautifully put. Thank you.
My Son’s best friend died of a rare childhood brain cancer when she was six. It was a huge learning for all of us about acceptance. The thought of her doing battle was so out of sync with the reality of her beautiful life force.
After I was diagnosed myself , it seemed to me that my cancering cells were manically trying to contribute, shifting, changing reproducing as fast as possible- just trying, trying trying to function in some way – when really they were broken.
I did a lot of visualization during treatments of offering compassion for those cells, and letting them know they could contribute by letting go and by being recycled. It was not helpful for me to focus on being angry, or to use war analogies.
Light and love
I am so sorry about your son’s friend. I know mortality is part of life, but it just seems so wrong, especially when it involves a child. It’s a very difficult thing to accept.
I know exactly what you mean about wanting to ‘connect’ with your cells through compassion. For me it was more about trying to accept. I didn’t feel angry, not that there’s anything wrong with feeling this emotion. I went as far as to naming my tumor, Pitufo (this is embarrassing). Who would have thought. It is true we never know how we’d react until we’re faced with the situation. I guess I wanted to create a ‘casual’ moment during a time when nothing seemed to be going well for me.
I love the idea of naming tumors- I wish I had thought of it. If you can’t make light of it all, then it really can become impossibly drear! It is amazing to me how many different ways that people use their creativity to make it through hard things. During my treatments my family made all kinds of jokes about stuff that would probably have horrified a casual observer.
For us it lightened the load, and helped us talk about death more openly. Luckily from where I am now, I am thinking death might be many years away for me, and I am grateful for the chance I had to look death in the eye and made some peace with it.
Watching Madeline go through her death at such a young age, though incredibly difficult, was also a gift in many ways. She was a teacher, showing that it is okay to have fun- even if you are really sick, and even if you are dying. One of the last things she wanted to do, near the end of her life was make cookies for all the people she loved. We measured and she mixed the dough with her hands, she was blind by that point. She was so happy to be giving back. This was just a few weeks before her death. There is always more than one way to deal with anything. She chose love, and that still impacts me positively seven years later.
This is such an insightful perspective. You are so right: we all have an expiration date and are fragile. I’ve experienced such a wide array of emotions regarding cancer — from anger to sadness to grief — and even some acceptance. There is a difference between fighting to kill cancer cells and fighting oneself. I’ve beaten myself up emotionally over the years, and that fight was futile.
Thank you for such a great post. I will be thinking about what you wrote.
Beth, I’ve experienced a lot of different emotions about this illness, too. And in a way, my perspectives have evolved. I am still dealing with grief and I am afraid this will be ongoing — some days are better than others as we both know. Thank you for understanding and accepting my feelings about this subject. I am aware it is a bit sensitive for many (how we each see cancer) but we all have our own way of coping. xo