All this talk about cancer

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.

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13 Responses to All this talk about cancer

  1. yogamum says:

    Yes, yes, yes, absolutely!

    My almost-11-year-old has decided he “doesn’t want to hear anything else” about global warming and I secretly agree with him. I mean, I will continue to vote and try to make ecologically sound decisions and donate to the cause, but I don’t think I need to be part of the panic. It just depresses the hell out of me.

    You are so right about “being well.” I don’t want to micromanage every bit of my diet. It’s about balance, and having the wisdom NOT to see everything as a battle, as you say.

  2. hobgoblin says:

    I have been thinking about this a lot lately, because my dad had been “fighting” his cancerous brain tumor until Easter Sunday. When he was diagnosed, the only choice that really seemed to be at all viable was the surgery-chemo-radiation unholy trinity. This was how to fight that wicked tumor. All the treatment may have prolonged his life by a month. In retrospect the better solution would probably have been to skip the surgery and spend the last month or two living instead of dying. No one wants to admit that fighting is not necessarily the best thing to do, but that is how we are programmed to look at cancer or any of the other myriad things that will kill you.

  3. Smithereens says:

    Your post is so right and beautifully written. I hate this culture of fear too, it stops people from being daring and courageous. The more we fear, the more control we want to have around us, and we end up unprepared for life and death. I think a lot about how people used to live without this mass of information about all kinds of illnesses and disasters. Getting rid of tv has relieved us of the weight of all this negative information streaming to us 24/7.

  4. Yogamum – I don’t blame your son at all, and I actually think it shows quite a bit of maturity on his part, to understand when he has heard enough. That’s a very adult decision!
    Hobgloblin -I am so, so sorry about your father. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers. But don’t second guess the last month or two. You, and he, did what seemed right.
    Smithereens – aw, thank you! I hate this culture of fear, too. I really should just get rid of my cable subscription but I’m a sucker and S. loves the sports…

  5. Andi says:

    Very nicely put! I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think we all fall into that “our body as enemy” frame of mind sometimes, and it’s essential that we be conscious of that attitude and try to get back to something truly healthier.

  6. Emily says:

    You’re so right. I just had the pleasure of seeing Richard Louv who wrote Last Child in the Woods (which I must read now) speak, and despite the fact he’s a journalist, one of his main points was that journalists just help feed into this culture of fear of ours. He mentioned the fact that we’re all made to feel helpless about global warming. I also saw Thomas Friedman speak, and despite his contribution to some of this fear-based journalism, he was actually very hopeful about the future, as well.

    And as someone who’s read WAY too many health articles in newspapers and magazines, I’m well aware of the fact that I should spend more time enjoying my body and what I can do with it than worrying about it (worry which is likely to make me sick). Maybe I’ll go smoke a cigarette and drink a martini tonight :)! Well, the martini at least. (I’m not going to waste a huge sum of money on a pack of cigarettes just so I can smoke one.)

  7. litlove says:

    Well this is just a fabulous post. The thought of cancer has me freaking big time, and yet, we’ve all got to die. It’s not a ghastly outcome, it’s the only outcome. The amount of time I spend worrying about it before I get there is only detrimental to the possibilities of joy and pleasure in my life. But as you so rightly say, we have disaster thrust in our faces all the time. Still, I’ve made a pact that if I reach 60, I’m going to start drinking and smoking and playing poker for all I’m worth. I really don’t see why not.

  8. Fence says:

    I’m not saying I want to die, cause I don’t, but I don’t think I’m that afraid of it. And I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife. Of course if I was told I was dying I might feel differently.

    Anyway, I agree, there is too much of a fear culture around.

  9. Courtney says:

    Andi, you are absolutely correct. There must be a way to get back to a healthier mindset. Our country is kind of sick right now, I think.

    Emily, yes, enjoy the martini (not the cigarette, though – we should all stay away from them). We can join litlove…
    when we are all in our sixties smoking, drinking and playing poker.

    Litlove – as noted above, I’m inviting myself and Emily to join you.

    Fence, my husband isn’t scared of death either. I read somewhere that the world is separated into two kinds of people…those who are afraid of death and those who aren’t. I think it’s kind of brilliant.

  10. bloglily says:

    Hello Courtney, I like that part about the elegant cancer cells — I remember you mentioned that once to me some time ago and I found it intriguing and comforting. I think we do best when we spend our lives living — you die in only a single moment, unless you live in fear of it, and when you do, you manage to transform your time living into one very long death. I don’t think that’s how we were intended to go about the business of being alive. Happy Easter to you. Lily

  11. Charlotte says:

    What a beautiful and fascinating post. So much of it struck home to me, especially when you say that crimes against humanity are far worse than death. You are right about listening to your body and doing what is good for it. I, for one, will be taking good long walks with my body and not taking it anywhere near any elliptical trainers – thanks for the permission to do so!

  12. Sylvia says:

    Hi, I’m new here. As a chronic sickie (M.E.) I’ve thought about illness and death a lot, and I agree with everything you wrote here. There is more to life than avoiding death!

  13. Pingback: Kate Walbert, Playdate (2007) « Smithereens

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