As human beings, we are always looking for cause and effect. We want that certainty we get when we know that this caused that, because then we know how to avoid pain, sadness, accidents, and all the other bad feelings in the world. Some would even like to find the key to avoiding death. While it might sound good that you could live forever (or even just a hundred years longer), that doesn’t mean you will have health or your loved ones or money (and so on). Living a long, long life could spell ruin and depression and loneliness like you never imagined. (Just watch Highlander to help you imagine that.) No, death is as much a part of life as breathing. It’s more than just death we want to avoid, though. We want to avoid any unpleasantness. I’m sort of in that headspace right now, though not to an extreme. I’m informed and grounded, but I don’t live in the unpleasantness. I can’t afford to.
One of the things that cancer taught me is to live more in the moment (or the day), to not plan so far ahead, to enjoy the present. It was the best piece of advice I got when I was diagnosed. I asked my doctor if I should be concerned when he sent me for a diagnostic mammogram after confirming the lump I had found. He said, “Concerned, but not fearful.” Nurses added the advice: “Don’t focus on what’s next or how long all of this will take. Just focus on today.” That made all the difference in how I handled cancer, and how I found equanimity with cancer. Now I am applying the same philosophy to my life in remission. If I tried to control the world or if I tried to worry about the problems that could be coming down the line, I would go crazy. It is better for me to focus on today. What can I do today? What is the next right thing to do?
Life has been interesting over the last couple of weeks. I’ve been very busy both at work and in my private life. My son turned 35 years old last weekend, which is ten years older than his sister ever aged. His friends all celebrated with him, and my ex-wife was in town to visit and celebrate, too. We enjoyed hanging out with everyone and then hanging out with each other, mostly watching shows because neither of us felt well at all last weekend. I guess that’s part of getting older for us. While some folks our age run marathons and such, we haven’t had the easiest time physically. There is no one particular cause for that. If I could point to one thing I did to cause my declining health and say, “Yes, that’s it! That’s why I’m suffering now,” would it really do any good? Is it because I smoked (although I gave it up when I got pregnant with my daughter and gave up even the occasional bumming of a cigarette 20 years ago)? Is it because I’m not a marathon runner? Is it genetics? Is it the fact that I like desserts after dinner? Why do we need to know?
In our culture, we celebrate youth and athleticism and ego. We love the CEOs whose decisions make us a lot of money, even if they are horrible people. We worship this idea of personal freedom like it’s a god. We are out for number one and think we don’t need anyone else to survive. And we blame people for getting sick. Maybe not to their faces, but we get a bit smug and say to ourselves, “Well, of course he got cirrhosis of the liver! He drank whiskey every night!” Maybe he contracted hepatitis through a bad blood transfusion and didn’t see a doctor regularly. Maybe he was exposed to toxins that weren’t found until later. Is it still his fault?
When was the last time you heard someone blame an athlete for getting shin splints or tearing a ligament or getting a concussion? But as a society we are quick to blame someone who commits suicide because they didn’t reach out for help or because they were just weak. And God help you if you have a heart attack or become diabetic or get cancer. People will pick your life apart to try to figure out what you did wrong to give yourself that result. Why? Because then they can fool themselves into thinking it will never happen to them. Well, I don’t drink/smoke/eat meat/eat anything not organic! It’s a slippery area indeed, because if we get sick ourselves, we immediately start to pick our own lives apart, trying to find the source of illness. We take the concept of survival of the fittest quite literally. We seem surprised when a young person, a healthy person, drops dead of a heart attack or is diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease. But he was so young! He was an athlete! She went to the gym every day! Life is terminal.
I’m sure folks have done some armchair quarterbacking about my health, too. I’m not an athlete, but when I was young, I roller-skated, biked, (sometimes) ran, but mostly I walked. My last few gym memberships (even with a trainer) have resulted in injuries, though. One of those injuries resulted in two surgeries with plates and screws in my neck. Another resulted in knee pain and swelling so bad that I had to go for PT and painful shots. And the last time at the gym resulted in bursitis so bad that I submitted to the shots in my shoulder. I need to do more walking now, which is safer for me, but not because I blame myself for getting sick. I just need the exercise. Exercise and a healthy diet have been shown to help reduce the risk of recurrence. Science.
My sister pushes me to exercise more. Recently, though, she has taken a couple of bad falls herself. Sometimes she pushes herself too hard. Where is the line?
On one of the cancer support group pages on Facebook, I hear a lot of women talking about all these “miracle” cures, none of which have any science behind them to show they make any difference at all. What can be deadly is pinning all your hopes on some wacko who sells snake oil or peddles his or her own brand of “miracle.” It kind of breaks my heart to see these women thinking about turning down science and going for what they think is a more “natural” approach, only to waste valuable time and risk their lives. But I say nothing to them that isn’t supportive. I have the right to disagree with them, but I do it in my own head. The last thing that anyone with cancer needs is any kind of judgment. Does white man’s medicine have all the answers? Of course not. There are many complementary therapies that can help alleviate side effects from chemo, that can give you a better quality of life. But if I had to do it again, I’d still follow my doctor’s plan. After all, I’m still here, scars and all! I’m alive.
I don’t kid myself. Someday, whether it’s cancer or something else, something will get me, and I will be gone. For now I will live my life to the very fullest, and I will find peace and happiness everywhere I can. I’m spending time doing things I want to do. I’ve had to push back when some people push the idea that thinking positively will keep me in remission. I’m a fairly positive person, but cancer is sneaky. Cancer cells can be lingering in your body despite “no evidence of disease.” There is a realism that sets in when you’ve had cancer. Yes, live your life fully and completely, but never let down your guard. Be aware of what’s happening in your body. Find someone you can talk to about those fears.
When I feel that someone is insinuating that if I don’t think positively, I could get cancer again, I get angry. I want to ask them, “If thinking positively will keep away the recurrences, does that mean you think I gave myself cancer? And exactly what thoughts did that?” I had absolutely no reason to think I’d get breast cancer. None. I wasn’t focused on that or any other type of cancer. I had plenty of other things to deal with. Despite my anger at their ignorance of what this is like, those conversations leave me questioning my choices all over again. Should I have –? What if I had — ?
I was pretty upset when I was diagnosed, but not just because of the obvious. When I was a young woman, I heeded the science about preventing breast cancer, because I came of age around the time the medical community finally started talking about it. I did self-exams. I went for checkups. The science said that women who were under 30 when they had their first child and who breastfed their children had a much lower risk of getting breast cancer, so I had my children in my 20s and breastfed them. I couldn’t control the late age when I started my period. That’s the only risk factor I had. I do not have the BRCA gene or any of the other genes that science has been able to connect to breast cancer. It was random, and it was aggressive. I am the 1 in 8.
But back to cause and effect. In some sciences, like physics, you can see cause and effect clearly. You can decompose light with a simple prism. You can understand gravity by simply dropping an item. But try to apply simple cause and effect to diseases of the human body, with all of the many ways that cells can behave, and it is far more complicated. You can do everything in your power to be well, but part of living is dying. One can simply postpone decay, not eradicate it.
A couple of people in my life tell me I can vent to them whenever I need to about all of this, but I can see that if the conversation gets too deep into my fears about a recurrence, they can’t help but get uncomfortable. No one I love wants to think about me getting sick again. Neither do I, but I need to explore these feelings. It’s part of the recovery process. So I’m thinking of going back to therapy for a bit, just to have a neutral person with whom I can talk through these feelings. This is the society we’ve become. We have to pay someone to listen to our darkest feelings, because the unpleasantness is too great.
May you have health, happiness, and a long life. Namaste, Jude