Thursday, August 17, 2006

Cancer: Call it enemy, or call it friend?

In his blog earlier this week, Leroy Siemens examines a posting from a mother who asks whether or not her daughter, who died from cancer, has "lost" if the fight for life against the cancer is a "war." Of course, he points out that we would not stigmatize the now dead cancer patient by saying they "lost the war," but so often those with cancer and those writing about cancer describe the fight for life as a war, a battle, a fight, and those fighting for their lives as warriors. I'm not entirely comfortable with this language, this image, although I certainly want to continue living, which would mean "winning the fight" against this gallbladder cancer.

A longtime friend who has had several different cancer diagnoses, including breast cancer, wrote to me soon after my diagnosis, and encouraged me to make ffriends with the cancer. "It is part of you," she wrote, "so why not make friends with it?"

Similar language is expressed by Dawna Markova in her book I Will Not Die an Unlived Life, where she describes her survival from a cancer diagnosis many years ago, and her discomfort with the "battle" language so typical of describing a fight for one's life following a cancer diagnosis. She writes:

When cancer first came into my life, people all around me treated it as the enemy. I was told I had to join the medical team and we'd fight together to defeat it. This was the wrong thing to say to someone who was the last one to be picked for any team. I was much happier sitting on the sidelines and encouraging the other players. I was totally unskilled at defeating anything. So, I secretly went my own way and decided that I was free to choose the meaning of the healing experience. I decided I would develop a friendly relationship with the cancer, which was something I was good at.

However, Markova does not go on to say how befriending the cancer helped her to heal from it, to move past it, to have it not take her life. Rereading this passage, I can see that one way would be to put the emphasis on "healing," not on cancer. I can also see a "lessons to be learned from the cancer" aspect of befriending it, but I don't see how that can lead to healing of the physical body. So, perhaps a part of me does want to "beat" the cancer, because I can't see how I can continue to live as long as it is in my body, and the doctors tell me that they know of no way to kill gallbladder cancer. Again rereading Markova's words, I am reminded of my competitive nature, my desire to excel, to do a thing well. But, more than being a "good" cancer patient, I want to be successful in my intense desire to have my life continue, and not to have it end with this cancer.

Battle image or friend image? Which has the potential for more healing, for me in this situation? I feel that I need to hold this question in my heart and see what answers come. While I wait for those insights, I am interested in the experiences, thoughts, impressions, wisdom from those reading this blog. And, perhaps I should call my friend who befriended her cancer and ask her how she did it.


SaintMartha said...

I do not think I would be capable of befriending something that has the potential to end my life. Instead I would be of the mindset, "Hey...damned cancer...get the hell away from me." I would much rather show the cancer that I am the boss of me and not the other way around.

In my humble opinion making friends with the enemy is tantamount to inviting it to stick around for a long, long while.

I believe miracles can and do happen...we just have to seek them out. Befriend the miracle...!

Anonymous said...

I, too, have always felt uncomfortable with the battle metaphor: conquering the unseen enemy and all. Longevity is a natural desire, of course, for most of us, but I believe there is a bigger picture, beyond our em-body-ment here on earth. Letting go doesn't have to mean giving up. Making peace with the cancer doesn't mean that you like it, that you resign yourself to death. Being fully awake and alive to the experience is what seems to me to be key. As the Borg say (Star Trek), "Resistance is futile," but I mean this in a Buddhist way, not as a surrender to defeat (there's the old battle image again). It's not a question of winning or losing. Death comes to all of us; dying doesn't make a "loser" out of any of us, which, it seems to me, is the natural - and illogical - extension of the whole metaphor. Letting go of our desires, being fully present with each moment that is, awakening to experience - these are the lessons that felt most important to me as I journeyed with and through cancer. It's humbling, opening up to this ultimate lack of control. We control those things we can in the meantime, throw up our arms and scream with sheer terror and delight!

Anonymous said...

I have lived the experience that you are facing from the other side. I was the spouse of a terminally ill diagnosis of my loved one. acceptence is one factor, which by the way is a spiratual thing.

There were so many factors including family, money, care givers, fear of what you don't know, and fear of what you do.

In the end you must lead, and face the journey head on. Do what you can not to burdon others while accepting their love and affection, as well as sincerely felt help.

If you look only forward, and live the words spoken by Abe Linclon, "you are as happy as you make up your mind to be", the journey will be less burdensome to all. Love those who love you and allow them show their concern in any way they want as long as it remains positive to you.

Anonymous said...

Whoaaaa! Just because the doctor gives you a pessimistic prognosis does not mean it will happen that way. On August 6 of 2005 I had my gall bladder removed and after the surgery my surgeon told my wife (and later me) that I should get my affairs in order as soon as possible because I had gall bladder cancer and it was unlikely that I would live 6 months. I have had surgery, radiation, and three different chemo drugs, some of which have been helpful, some debilitating, but I am still alive, stronger, heavier, and more certain that internet statistics that are two or more years out of date do a big disservice to people like us. Please write me at and I will share more with you.
The newest member of your support group, Woody Beckman