I struggled with whether or not to write this post. It’s sort of a bummer. It’s also an intensely personal issue for me, one that I feel most profoundly when I am alone. I didn’t know if this was something I should make public, because I couldn’t figure out if it was anyone else’s business. I think, however, that I should say something, because it’s an issue that bridges the boundaries of human existence. The issue is cancer. I hate cancer. Cancer sucks. I want to rage at the existence of cancer. I want to say evil, terrible things about it and make vile, obscene gestures at it.
My mother has cancer. My father-in-law died of cancer. His daughter is a survivor. Three of my good friends are cancer survivors. Several coworkers are going through the whole chemo/radiation/healing process. One of my best friends’ mother has a horrible cancer that has left her with a gaping wound where her vulva should be. I know women who have no breasts, one breast, reconstructed breasts, tattooed nipples. I know bald women and men with no eyebrows, no testicles, one testicle, one lung; men with scars that criss-cross their bodies from multiple surgeries. Wives and husbands, daughters, sisters, brothers, nephews, parents, children, breasts, colons, ovaries, skin, brains, bones, blood, livers. What is about the human body that makes it turn on itself? Why do cells start reproducing abnormally and mutate into horrible clusters that carry the potential to end the life of a body?
Cancer’s been around forever, as long as humanity itself. In 1932, Louis Leakey, famed archaeologist and anthropologist, found a body that carried what looked like Burkitt’s lymphoma. The body was either an Australopithecus or an early Homo Erectus – between 1.5 and 2 million years old. There are other records and remains from ancient Egypt and the Incas and even a female from the Bronze Age that show cancer was around back then. It’s not a modern affliction. And it’s actually rather common – roughly 564,000 people died from cancer in 2006, while 632,000 died of heart disease. Not that much difference…
…Oh, who am I kidding? … My attempt to find stats about cancer is my pathetic attempt to distance myself like some damn scientist. Maybe if I hide behind the protective mask of cold, naked facts I won’t have to face the fact that one of the people I love most in the world – my mother – may one day die of this stupid disease. Or that I, my husband, my daughter, my sister – all of us – may carry cancer genes somewhere in our bodies that may someday appear like a sounder of wild boar – dangerous, fascinating, terrifyingly ugly and notoriously hard to eradicate.
The writer Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, said, “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever. The goal is to create something that does.” There’s a lot of truth in that. I know that Rick’s dad left a HUGE legacy with his kindness and creativity.
Maybe I’m overthinking this whole cancer thing. I hope so. Even though I want to rage at the injustice of it all, and want to think of it as a curse, maybe cancer is a blessing, an opportunity. Maybe I should just let go and see it as a gift. A gift from the Universe that reminds us all that we live in finite, rented bodies. Perhaps getting cancer allows us to reconcile our spiritual beliefs or doubts with the fact that we don’t live forever.
Years ago, I took a course at the Omega Institute in Rhineback, NY with Elizabeth Lesser, cofounder of Omega. Her course was the most profound experience of my adult life. In closing the course, Elizabeth led participants on a guided meditation of our own death, so we could lose our fear of death and embrace the experience of life. That 15 minutes changed my life forever. Maybe cancer can do that, too.
What if cancer is a way of allowing us to get our affairs in order so we lose our fear of death? What if cancer allows our loved ones to, if not “get right” with death, then at least accept it? What if it allows THEM to accept that their bodies will all one day stop working and the soul part of us will go on to another place or to another body? Maybe my mother’s cancer is a gift to me and my sister and my father.
What we should focus on, then, is the life leading up to that moment. The actual transition to the next stage of existence becomes rather irrelevant. We should focus on loving each other. God is love so, to honor all that is holy in us, we should love each other with unending love. Honor each other with boundless respect. Bow to all that is holy in each other. Realize that there is nothing that happens in this life that cannot be forgiven.
Maybe I should rethink the rage thing. Namaste.