When I was going through chemo 5 years ago, a close friend brought me the audiobook, Love, Medicine, and Miracles. In it, Dr. Bernie Siegel relates that in his decades’-long study of cancer patients, they nearly all followed similar paths that led ultimately to a cancer diagnosis. This path crescendoed in despair. In fact, he writes that he believes cancer to be “despair felt on a cellular level.”
Further, another friend lent me her copy of, You Can Heal Your Life, wherein Louise Hay “diagnoses” each illness with a core belief. Blood disorders, like my Leukemia, were associated with “actively killing joy.” Which, I suppose, is another way to say despair.
Reading these at the time, I felt 100% in agreement with these “pre-existing conditions” that caused me to be ripe for the cancer plucking. Partly because it meant that there was something I could “do” in the vulnerable and uncontrollable shadow of The Big C. If I had in some way caused my own cancer, then I could in some way heal it. And whatever the veracity of correlation or causation, because of this new understanding, I dove more deeply into my spiritual practice, into overcoming my underearning/underbeing, and into sharing more of who I am. I actively, and marrowly, became more courageous. And I believe it helped to save my life (and still does).
When I consider these passages today, I find that I have to be less sure about what they mean for other people. Because I found these words so empowering and galvanizing and ultimately life-saving, I want to offer the same understanding to others who are facing the same challenges.
But not everyone believes, wants to believe, will ever believe that their cancer is of their own making. I can get that. I must get that if I want to maintain relationships with those people in my life who are facing down the barrel of diagnosis.
My best friend since childhood is having cells retested.
When I think about my role in her life, it’s not as a sage of “you can heal your life.” The consideration of that feels so inauthentic and distancing, I could puke. What my role in her life today could be is similar to that about which I wrote yesterday for my students: to be there, to witness, to love.
I want to make it “fixable” (not that there’s anything to fix—there’s no diagnosis as of today), because if it’s fixable then it’s controllable. And if it’s controllable, we’re not powerless, and if we’re not powerless, we can achieve our desired outcome.
But. That’s not the way life, or death, works. Well, certainly not my control of their lives.
I am multitudinously grateful that my 2 friends gifted me those books while I was grasping for a lifeboat, for ground in a storm of tests, infusions, and sickness. I am sure on some level I attracted those passages into my life (if you’re into that sort of thing), because they were what I needed so very much to weather it all. I needed a course to follow, an anchor to hold. And understanding that I could bring myself out of the darkness of disease (in conjunction with Western and Eastern medicine) felt, as Bernie calls it, miraculous.
And with a 20% 5-year survival rate? Well, fuck cancer indeed!
However, today I must stand in the truth of what is needed at this moment, and that is not to intone to my friend any piece of how she has to change her life. I have absolutely no idea what the truth of her life is, and I have no place offering up my opinion. (If there’s anything I learned during cancer it’s that opinions [about health] are like a**holes: everyone has one, and usually they stink.)
There is so much powerlessness in the face of disease, and lo! that I want to find the tether to hold and the sword to rail!!! … what I want is of no consequence here.
What I need is to be present with my friend. To be loving and generous, and also to be freakin’ normal. Whether or not there is a diagnosis in my friend’s future, there are those in my life who do have that diagnosis and those who, unfortunately, will.
This time is my planting ground, my training ground, for who I want to be when these circumstances arise, as they inevitably will.
So, what does cancer mean?? Nothing, man. It means nothing—except Love and Be Loved.