Monday, October 14, 2013

Naming Our (Cancer) Fears

“I don’t like that word,” she told me, handing me back a flyer for my upcoming yoga workshop. 
The flyer read Yoga for Cancer Survivors in big, bold letters.
“What word,” I asked. “… Cancer?”
“No,” she said, “survivor. What does that even mean? I didn’t survive cancer, I live with my cancer. Every day.”

Petra Lentz-Snow, practicing
in Death Valley
She is not alone. Many people are put off by the term survivor. Some don’t feel it applies to them until they are free of cancer, some feel it’s too heroic a term, especially compared to the countless loved ones who struggled and did not survive, and some identify more as a survivor of cancer treatment survivor than of their disease. The word cancer has many emotions tied to it, and so does the term survivor.

Some people view their cancer journey as a minor detour, while others see it as a life-changing turning point. One of my students continued to leave her hair very short, even after her chemotherapy was done and her hair had come back in. When I asked her why, she replied that she wanted a daily reminder to never return to her unbalanced way of life, which she believes attributed to her cancer diagnosis. She wanted a visual that would keep her perspective broad and her heart open, which is what her diagnosis did for her. Her cancer journey was a learning experience for her.

For those of us who live a life with goal-oriented action in mind, always striving for the next summit, perhaps at the expense of our health or emotional balance, a cancer diagnosis can be a turning point, and an opportunity to explore other ways to be in our world. 

I think the biggest reason why the word survivor prickles people is that it implies that the person is completely done with their cancer journey. To survive cancer means, in our minds at least, to be rid of it for good. Unfortunately, cancer doesn't always agree to stay gone. But to dwell on the idea that it may return affects our health and, ironically, our ability to keep it at bay.

So what name do we use?

In medical language, living with cancer refers to the time period between diagnosis and treatment, living though cancer refers to the treatment time period, and living beyond cancer refers to the time after treatment. 

“Do you think that a cancer diagnosis is inevitable, that we are all at risk?” A friend texted me one day. She was on a daunting cancer journey that quickly metastasized, and she was told that, even with treatment, her life would be cut short by cancer. If you look at the statistics predicting how many of us will receive a diagnosis, it is tempting to believe we will all have cancer at some point, and it’s also tempting to feel hopeless about it. I knew what she was really asking, so I answered that question instead: “I believe that we can live with cancer.” 

I want all my loved ones to do everything they can to tip the scales against cancer and in their own favor, including living without fear. But if we are to live with cancer and without fear, we must understand this disease and understand our own fears around it. When I told my friend that I believe we can live with cancer, I wasn’t meaning the medical term. I meant that we can learn to have a partnership with our cancer cells, through knowledge, acceptance and presence. We can recognize and defend against this disease’s opportunistic quality, we can accept life’s challenges and joys with equanimity and we can build stronger, deeper ties to our bodies, breath, mind and emotions, sinking into our present moment again and again.

“I see the partnership,” she replied. 

Last Thursday, she left this world. Without fear.