Here at the cancer hospital we are absolutely agog over all the cancer happenings of late: Elizabeth Edwards and the return of her breast cancer, Tony Snow’s metastatic cancer, “Newsweek” dedicating an entire issue to the disease. When you work for a cancer hospital the disease is on your mind a minimum of eight hours a day, but really, probably more like ten or twelve. A lingering headache from too much time at the computer causes you to wonder if perhaps you have brain cancer…an odd mole you never noticed before inevitably spells your doom. We employees go to the doctor a lot, and not just for the routine vaccinations and TB tests – any sort of discomfort or cut of unknown origin wrecks havoc in our brain because there was that guy the one time who didn’t know where his cut came from and he DIED despite our doctors most valiant efforts….
We freak the fuck out, basically.
While I’m as likely as the next employee to make a mad dash to my primary care physician, who is holistic and likes to pat me and give me tea, even I am beginning to think the culture of fear we’ve created in this country is doing unknowable damage to our psyches. Last Friday I spent much of the day listening to various experts wax on about global warming until, by the end of what should be a sacred day, I found myself spiraling down that black hole of helplessness, where you might as well smoke and drink and eat steaks the size of your head because if I don’t die from mole on my leg I’m certainly going to be swept away by the massive floods heading my way in the next 50 years and what’s the point in anything if we are caught up in events entirely beyond our control? Fortunately I pulled myself out of this funk by the time my parents arrived, but regardless. I was there for a bit.
I think, in Elizabeth Edwards and Tony Snow, so many of us see our worst fears realized: even with the best medical care and the gold standard of health insurance, Edwards and Snow still relapsed. They are still….sick. They may, some time a long long time from now, die. And if two such prominent, wealthy, white, American citizens can’t stop death, what can the rest of us possibly do? Of course, Edwards and Snow are both soldiering on, trying to live their lives as though nothing has changed. Cancer won’t slow them down.
And personally, I’ve decided this is part of the problem. We live in a culture where we consider death the worst of all possible outcomes when, in fact, crimes against humanity throughout history have proven that there are things much, much, worse than death. If one is faithful at all, death shouldn’t be something to fear. I won’t go so far as to say you should look forward to it, but it shouldn’t be…the worst thing. But all of this…soldiering on through illness, working through it, maintaining your life exactly as it was before…well, I simply don’t agree. It’s the same kind of problem I have with all of the war words we use with cancer – Edwards is waging a battle, Snow is fighting, both will overcome this war within their bodies. When the language we use to talk about our bodies is violent, how can our mindset towards it be healthy? A researcher I once interviewed told me cancer cells actually live quite elegantly next to healthy cells – that’s one of the reasons it’s often so hard to detect. Cancer cells can live for years and years next to healthy cells without any sort of symptoms – your body doesn’t recognize cancer cells as not belonging. If cancer cells were people, they’d be your good friend, the person you have over for tea or wine and some harmless gossip. You would hang out with your cancer cells. You certainly wouldn’t torch their lawns or put a hit out on them.
To me, it seems we live in an age of illness instead of health, and thanks to the news and internet we know the symptoms of every possible sickness, from cancer to herpes to AIDS to Parkinson’s. We are bombarded with what we should eat and what we shouldn’t, how much we should exercise and what exercise we should do to ward of this or that, how much sleep we should or should not get, how we should de-stress in a world where our bodies are second only to the Taliban in terms of Shit That Will Get You. And in all of this, we fail to honor our bodies as part of ourselves.
My little niece, Violet, asks for green beans and strawberries if, the day before, she went to a birthday party and ate too much cake. Her mom says Violet is particularly adept and understanding what her body needs, and while one day she’ll happily enjoy an ice cream cone, the next she will ask, very politely, for some oatmeal. She is young enough, still, listen to what her body tells her. So many of us have lost that ability. We come to work with sinus infections and the flu because we think we have too – we eat fish for the fatty acids but we avoid potatoes because they make us fat – we exercise not because we enjoy it but because it’s supposed to combat stress although it stresses us out HAVING to exercise – we don’t change our lives one whit when we get diagnosed with cancer, because doing so would admit some sort of defeat.
I think, if you are sick, you should stay home from work. I think you should eat fish only if you enjoy it, and if you don’t, screw it. I think you should find an exercise you love – you should dance or practice yoga or hike, but you should not pedal to no where on an elliptical trainer if the idea makes you want to vomit. And if you have cancer, and you have the means to do so, you should honor it and recognize that this diagnosis is like the pause button for your life – not the end of the program at all, but perhaps a chance to take some time and love yourself a little bit more.
It saddens me to think we’ve turned our bodies into one more thing we have to be wary of – one more thing on a long list of things that require constant vigilance and care. The truth of it is, our bodies will betray us hundreds of times over the course of our lives. We will pull muscles and need eye glasses and have to have things biopsied and studied and we will be told scary news and often we will be fine until, at some point, we aren’t. But how much better could all of that be if we regard our bodies as our allies, as vehicles for enormous pleasure, as wholly and completely ours, instead of detached vessels we feed and inspect at the encouragement of an overly stimulated media?
I, for one, don’t want to spend my next thirty years terrified that every time my neck cricks up or I have a tooth ache my end is near. I want to rest when I am tired, stay home when I am sick, have sex and eat chocolate when I’m not, stay away from the treadmill and close to nature, and when bad news is delivered I want to be able to say I loved myself to the best of my ability, and I mostly understood how I worked, and while I will do everything I deem appropriate to extend my life, my body is one thing I won’t war with. I may poor some toxic chemicals into it or have portions of me removed, but it will be for a future of more chocolate, more sex, more long walks under a warm sun, and not because I’m battling myself.
I believe we can be well – we can all be well. Maybe not all of the time, maybe not even most of the time, but we can, throughout our lives, relish wellness. I know this gift has been given to me, and I hope those of us who have had the fortune to experience this kind of wellness can find a way to help others achieve it, however transitory it may be. But I think it takes changing our minds about kind of people we are. It takes understanding that not every thing in life is a fight, a battle to be waged. Some things, the hard things, require sleep and sunlight and a guiding belief that our bodies are our allies. Sometimes, the worst times, they may be our only allies. We should know them as such.