Yesterday on my walk with Joe, we saw one of the little yellow warblers flitting amongst the branches of a blooming scotch broom. They are so beautiful, with a quick cheerfulness and a loopy small-bird flight pattern – as if they are always skipping or dancing. We also happened upon a courtship routine of a few brown-headed cowbirds. A little song sparrow was situated near them taking a defensive stance – announcing a sort of anti-welcome. The song sparrow, which usually calls out “Maids, Maids Maids, put on your tea kettle kettle kettle,” was most definitely not inviting the promiscuous cowbirds to tea. Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds – the cowbird babies are more precocious, and develop faster than most songbirds. They survive with the strategy of outcompeting the true children in whichever nest they are laid. A female cowbird can lay up to three dozen eggs per summer. Both yellow warblers and song sparrows are targets of cowbird nest parasitism.
Seeing the cowbirds made me think about cancer-ing and the cure-vs-heal dichotomy, a concept I learned from Bernie Siegel. He differentiates between cure and heal, and encourages people to pursue healing. Like cancer-ing cells metastasizing, cowbirds have expanded far outside of their original range. They evolved on the great plains, eating the bugs flushed out by the migrating bison. Laying their eggs along the way meant they could keep traveling. The songbirds in the cowbird’s original range have adapted, with strategies for dealing with the parasitism. Within the last 50-100 years cowbirds have become common wherever land has been cleared, expanding into the habitat of other songbirds with little to no resistance throughout much of North America. The actions of people have created the opportunity for the cowbird expansion.
In an effort to protect migratory song birds, conservationists have initiated attempts to cull the cowbirds. But according to the Audubon Society, the problem is more complicated than just eliminating the cowbirds – loss of songbird habitat in general is a larger contributing factor in song bird decline. Toss in pesticides and we are seeing the predictions of Rachel Carson happening in the here and now. Counting culled cowbird bodies may help even the odds in the short term, as for Michigan’s critically endangered Kirkland Warbler, but in the long term there are bigger issues at play. Like culling cowbirds, western medicine’s “kill all visible cancer-ing cells” policy only addresses one piece of the issue. It is an attempt to cure, without any effort towards healing the deeper problem.
I recently watched a documentary about traditional healers, which explained it like this: curing is the process of eliminating symptoms in the body, healing is illuminating the root causes of the imbalance, and is a transformational process involving mind, body and spirit. Healing necessitates change, sometimes radical change, in diet, exercise, work and relationships. It is possible to be cured without healing – or healed without being cured.
This distinction is important I think because it acknowledges that those who are not “cured” of their illness are not failures. When we use cure as a measurement for “success” we may miss the very real and meaningful positive consequences of our healing. Seeing a cure as the only measure for “success” also leads to the sad occurrences in which someone may have a “cure” but miss out on the chance to heal. For instance the idea that early stage breast cancer is nothing more than a “year of inconvenience” downplays, or even ignores, the transformative potential within such a diagnosis. Healing has the potential to make life more meaningful regardless of cure outcome – as it brings us closer in alignment with what is truly important to us. This idea has really resonated with me more and more lately as I think of those amazing people I know who died as a consequence of their cancer-ing. Though they did not experience a cure, the healing work they did created healing not just for themselves, but for their beloveds as well. We were made somehow more whole by association.
Last weekend I finished reading the book Anti Cancer, by David Servan-Scheiber, a French-born Professor of Psychiatry who was diagnosed with Brain Cancer at the age of 31. His cancer was “cured” initially, but a relapse a few years later taught him the importance of healing work. It is an important addition to my list of guidebooks for the healing journey. His perspective on the Cure -vs- Healing dichotomy is that healing is reliant on three things: recognizing the importance of “terrain”, the effects of awareness, and the synergy of natural forces. “Every situation, every person is unique; each person’s way forward will be too. What matters above all is nourishing the desire to live.”
Today marks four weeks since my surgery, and tomorrow I turn 44 years old. ( I am lucky to share my birthday with Rachel Carson.) My brother Patrick is traveling here from his home in Manhattan to celebrate with us. We will definitely be celebrating my pCR as well as my birthday. I am very grateful to be granted a cure status; however, I am more committed than ever to addressing the deeper issues within myself, to continue to engage in the work of healing. Cancer-ing is the result of a decline in vibrant balanced health, and mirrors the decline in the vibrant balanced ecosystem that supports songbirds. (Though of course a balanced ecosystem is essential to human health as well!) Addressing the internal terrain of cancer-ing or addressing the terrain of song bird decline takes us into the realm of healing. A realm in which there are as many paths forward as there are people, or birds. What is important I think is that we each nourish our will to live, and support life around us.