There is a tightrope walked by folks after a cancering diagnosis. On one end of the rope is the diagnosis, on the other is death. A diagnosis changes your perception of how long that rope might be. Whereas prior to diagnosis most folks imagine themselves living to a ripe old age while dandling smiling great grand babies on their knee, a diagnosis brings death right up close, personal, and into the eternal now.
After completing treatments with an intent to cure, the work of coming to terms with the specter of death is not over. Those smiling great grand babies no longer seem like an eventuality, but rather a lucky improbable gift that may or may not be given. For me, at this point, the understanding that my lifespan is uncertain usually takes the form of acceptance rather than fear, or a feeling of doom. Usually but not always, because whenever I interface with the oncology world I am reminded of the doom side of things. Ditto, when ever I feel some mysterious ache or pain. The fears that my body has become a sort of cancer time bomb are not insignificant.
Opting out of several western interventions creates a sense of urgency around being mindful of the five actions of wellness, to figuring out how to craft a life grounded in them. (Those actions being: my thoughts, eating habits, exercise, social connections, and how I support my body’s detox mechanism). These things are all important, however, it is proving very easy to slip into not prioritizing them the farther out I get from my treatments. How to maintain the sense of urgency without it becoming a fear based thing is a bit of a challenge. The key is creating joyful ways to integrate them into life, a task that seemed so very doable back in 2014, but which now seems a bit more daunting.
I choose to believe that the inner transformation towards health is less about my cancering status, and more about resilience and redefining the stories I tell myself. That the cancering activity within me has perceptibly stopped in this moment is not any guarantee for the future. Everyone has cancer cells after all. Our imaging tools are imperfect, No Evidence of Disease does not mean absence. In the end, though I am always interested in being as healthy as possible, I wish to be grateful and happy more. For me that has meant choosing to focus on developing a practice of being grateful in the moment. This practice is an imperfect tool as well, because life brings challenges all the time that can push my thoughts into old worn ruts of various less helpful patterns. Places in which my fragile new habits of health fall to the wayside.
Some words of wisdom passed on to me as a child by Mrs. Sheehan “God helps those who help themselves.” seem apt here. This means that I need to commit to a practice of doing practical things conducive to joyful living, and to relearn how to imagine a bright future. If I am so blessed to remain healthy what do I want my life to be like, and specifically just what does it look like to include the five wellness actions? Because doing those actions are probably a message to God, the Universe and everything that I really do want to stick around.
Then there is a problem with the whole idea of planning. One barrier to planning is the sense of superstition that plagues me. If I make a five or ten year plan am I inviting disaster? I started a year long art project in January because I was having trouble trusting that my life would remain stable and free from cancering long enough to finish such a project. These are not necessarily rational thoughts. However, since treatments it has been difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anything longer term than a few months out at most. Making a commitment to a twelve month project has become a leap of faith. This is a fairly radical departure from my pre-cancer self, old me was filled with five year, ten year, twenty year and lifelong plans of all shapes and sizes. Old me was ambitious.
As my 48th birthday approaches I am thinking about how I want to look forward, how I might plan forward. The part of me that believes in the time bomb model wondering the whole time if it is hubris to do so.
Conversely, if I worry about recurrence am I inviting it? The reality is that even if the studies that relate to my specific status indicate that I am most probably an outlier, I know that there are mysterious forces at play, and that there are outliers of the outliers. Which brings me to worrying about worrying. Is questioning the same as taking big fat look into the gift Pooka’s mouth? When my pathology report came back as all clear, it was the universe granting me a miracle. When I worry about some random ache or pain am I invalidating the God-Magic?
So if I plan, I am taking my health for granted to a degree that is sure to offend the gods, and if I worry about recurrence – well then I am offending the gods by not trusting the great gift I have been given. Nothing in my life has brought forth my shadows to dance in the light of day like the last few years. These lines of thinking are not me at my best, and I am guessing that anyone who has gone through treatments for cancer has their own version of this kind of crazy. Cancer is a game changer, in a game where no one gives out the play book.
When I was diagnosed I stopped living in the mundane world. I put everything on hold except for loving people and doing the work of healing. I learned to meditate, I had weekly energy healings, there were hundreds of people praying for me on a regular basis, I ate differently, I walked everyday, I did lots of visualizations, I was surrounded by a bubble of only good news- my beloved ones guarded my “bad news moratorium” fiercely, I diligently worked to change my thoughts, and thought a lot about gratitude, I drank Chinese herbs, and of course I surrendered to the sorcery of the western medical model – I drank their poison and cut off my breast. I spent the year in a rarified state, my whole being casting a spell of acceptance, surrender, and hope. I did all of those things knowing deeply that the outcome was only very loosely connected to anything I might do. As with so many of the trials of life, cancer is bigger than any individual. The fact that I have experienced a certain state of grace is not a reward for anything I may have done, but rather some synergy of forces and factors far beyond my ken. The only response I am left with must be to be grateful no matter what might come my way.
The longer out I am from treatments, April 28th was the 4 year anniversary of my surgery, the farther out from the altered state I entered in 2014 during my year of positive thinking. That was not my first time in an extended altered state. Late pregnancy, and the first weeks after birth were a time of walking close to the veil. Then there was all the death that surrounded me from 2001 – 2011, deaths which pushed me into the strange twilight land of grief. Two very different, and yet oddly similar lands. Walking through them brings you back to the mundane world changed. Cancer Land is some sort of combination of the two.
The mundane world, the beautiful normal messy mundane world, has a way of sneaking up on a person. Of creeping in and overtaking the liminal and calling into question the “progress” I thought I made during that year. “Normal” life provides many new opportunities to test myself and learn to befriend my inner demons. Over and over and over again. This is when really getting serious about learning the art of disciplined self love comes into play. How to keep doing all the good things, the reframing, the gratitude, the eating well, the meditating, and the exercising for the pure joy of it? How to practice “First Love Yourself” even when I stumble? How to not be attached to the outcome so that I can realize the goal of living with Joy whatever might come? What seemed so doable in my time out of time, seems more complex when faced with the rhythms of everyday life.
There are moments when I remember the insights I had during my year of focus on healing – albeit at the time I was under the influence of some pretty intense medicines that messed with everything from my memory to my ability to button my own shirt, sometimes I do remember those thoughts that I had. The big one was a realization that we are all here simply to magnify, to amplify, love. That we are all swimming in love all of the time. If this is true, there are no deals with god to be made- if this is true the universe is always looking for ways to express love. When I get reconnected to that, suddenly it seems less important whether I will be available to to the work of love in 1 year, or 5 or 40. In that moment it is clear that my life’s worth will not be measured in minutes, but in how much I have loved. In that moment I realize that cancering was nothing more and nothing less than an agent of freedom.