It’s been over thirteen years since I was diagnosed with a stage four transitional cell carcinoma and was given four months to live. Often people ask what factors do I attribute to recovering from cancer. I am not sure as to what determinants were effective, there were probably as many as there are variables for so many of us being diagnosed with the big C.
One assumption, funda-mentally, I dare say, has lot to do with attitude.
What I mean by that is that there are correlations and cause and effect between the mind, the body and the immune system and how they function or become dysfunctional. We all have cancer cells in our body. The questions then become: which particular people have cells that become malignant, what gives the impetus for those to propagate and how do they vanish or come back with a mission after remission?
Edwin Friedman in his book “A Failure of Nerve” explains that normal cells have a specific identity and gravitate towards other cells that have similar functions; they specialize in order to contribute to the overall functioning of the larger body. They communicate with other cells in a mutually reciprocal network that regulate each other’s growth and behavior and they become cooperative. They know when to quit and have a gene for self destruction when they are dangerous to the host, which is a formidable altruistic phenomenon, build in bodhisattva cells!
Malignant cells differ from normal cells in all the respects mentioned and they lose their capacity for self definition, they are un-self regulating, reproduce uncontrollably, compete and instead of self destruct they are capable of killing their host. They are rogue cells and I label them terrorist cells.
I don’t call myself a survivor. When I was ill, I believed that all the cells in my body and mind were working their way towards optimum health…dealing with cancer is not waging war, wearing a pink bow or simply dealing with physical symptoms. It is about being at ease in one’s body and mind. Even when clinical pathways and interventions fail, one always has unlimited options and opportunities to be fully alive.
It is a journey of going deep into our interior territories to look at how we define ourself, regulate overwhelming emotions, create balance between doing and being and relate and connect to the world around us. We need healthy food, physical activities, sound values, a sane ethical outlook, coherence and cultivate loving kindness and compassion for ourselves. It also means holding the awareness that there are real limitations as to how much control we have in life and discern the options between facing what we are dealt with and how much we can let go of, which will then serve us and others boundlessly.
Whether with cancer or any major problem there are deep secondary levels of factors and conditions for their existence and any surface reactionary intervention or quick fix only compromise or add additional issues.
On one hand we are creating systems and chemicals that poison our earth, food, water, air ,space, bodies and our minds, on the other hand there are many elements and strategies currently in motion to remove those insidious elements and noxious poisons. Cancer treatment is big business and has been a very generous income generator for health care systems and pharmaceutical companies. At the same time they have also made available treatments that are trying to balance efficacy with toxicity, targeting specific areas and genomes,extending life for many.
We don’t just put food and medicine in our bodies but lots of information, assumptions, beliefs and ideas that influence us and unless we are able to integrate them in a coherent fashion, dis-ease will manifest. It is important to realize that “what we attend to becomes our reality” as William James stated. Some of us move beyond the proliferation of “terrorist cells”, value breathing anew, stay resilient and understand that what really matters is the capacity to be fully human and stay engaged with others in this incredible journey we call life. Maybe there will be a cure some day, in the meantime, healing happens when we forgive ourselves and others and live in the present moment, as human beings not just human doings.
As a coach and chaplain, I don’t see people as clients or patients, (an ironic word given that there are plenty of situations where it is difficult to be patient when one has to navigate the health systems) I practice presence, simply being, side by side with their tenderness, fragility and strengths, and their determination to live fully.
I am honored to serve them and witness how they enhance their quality of life. Life is not a gamble and there are no caveats for knowing who comes out of dis-ease and who doesn’t. For those who do, our spirit is strong; we know we have more inner work to do and be awake, for it is clear that the purpose of life is a life of purpose, all the way to the last breath.