Meditation on Cancer

Let. It. Grow.

This is what the meditation guy said.

“Let it grow.”

I’m sitting here preparing for the second treatment week of the first treatment wave for the recurrence and I’m listening to a cancer meditation that someone recommended to me because I’m trying—I’m trying—to be the kind of person who welcomes the poison and the burn because I think that maybe—maybe—that means it will work better. And I will do anything to make it work better.

“Cancer is a teacher,” the meditation guy says. OK. Fine. I mean, it’s a little offensive to suggest that I’m a slow enough learner that I had to get cancer in my 30s to pick up on something apparently everyone else just knows, but OK. Fine.

“What can you learn from it?” Trust me. More than you could know.

“Embrace it.” You’re starting to push my boundaries, meditation guy.

“Let it grow.” Yeah, no.

I’m going to set that particular intention aside and call it a night.

Let. It. Go.

Back to Battle

There’s a discussion among people who have or have had cancer about whether to describe treatment as a battle. Some people point out that cancer is “of us,” that we shouldn’t be going to battle with ourselves. Others say that such a description results in an unpleasant dichotomy: some people win, some people lose. Some people live, some people die. Some people live, some people die. The battle metaphor may suggest that some people are to blame if they “lose.” But I reject that. Cancer doesn’t fight fair.

Maybe it’s the advocate in me or maybe it’s just me tapping into the combination of characteristics that have always served me well, but I admit it–I approach it as a battle.* I look in the mirror the morning before treatment and I wish I had war paint. And those cancer cells might be part of me, but they’re in direct violation of the number one rule of living in my body: don’t try to kill me.

So today I start two battles: one, to kill this cancer, and two, to keep on living life on my terms. The second fight probably takes the most out of me, but it’s also the very best reason to keep fighting the first. And it’s the only of the two battles over which I have any real control control.

* With the big caveat that this is a very individual perspective and I would never question the way anyone else approaches it and I always give myself permission to change

How to Live Forever

Ok. I’m going to be straight with you. This is not a post about how to live forever and I am not an expert on that particular topic. At all.

If anything, this is a post on not living forever, even when your death still feels impossible. Like today. I presented the opening plenary talk for a major conference in my industry. I shared my work with them and they got excited about what they could do with it. About what we could do with it together. And I smiled and exchanged ideas. And in the back of my mind, I thought, “Will I even be around for this?” And then I thought, “Of course. It’s unthinkable that I won’t.” In that moment, it really felt unthinkable.

But later, when I was alone, I knew better. It’s not unthinkable. It’s something I have had to think about a lot over the last couple of weeks.

The cancer I was treated for in 2015 is back. The good news is, it’s curable. The bad news is, they don’t know how to cure it.

The cancer I had was rare to begin with—it was a small cell tumor that presented in my breast. Small cell usually presents in the lungs and occasionally in other sites. But never in the breast. Well, almost never. And it has since defied other small cell rules—fairly long time to recurrence (good), local recurrence instead of systemic (good), and less than optimal response to chemotherapy (bad). All of this means that the doctors are a bit…. befuddled… about how to proceed.

When you have cancer, you don’t want your doctors to be befuddled. One oncologist told me that when it comes to choosing my systemic treatment (which will accompany radiation), I may just have to flip a coin. Maybe “flip a coin” is the official medical term for something important. Maybe it doesn’t mean what I think it does.

While I generally  focus on life and curability and positivity and community and all the resources I will need to muster to step back into the ring, it is impossible for me to escape the possibility that I might die. I mean, of course I will die. We’ll all die. But that I might die soon.

So I’m a little more obsessed with death than usual. Today I read a political article that included a reference to the founder of the Breitbart “news” site and it said, “before he died…” and I found myself jumping to Wikipedia to figure out how he died. Heart issue. Instant death at 43. And I wondered—would that be better? To go instantly? Would it be worse? If he had to die at 43 and he had a choice about how it happened, what would he choose?

And as I was reading about Breitbart’s death, it struck me as funny that this is a person with whom I probably had nothing in common. Honestly? If I had known he existed back then, I probably wouldn’t have liked him much. But here I was, wondering what he would think of his death. About whether he would do it over if he could. Absent any judgment of his political ideology and with only the purest of curiosity about the humanity of another. Because for all our differences, neither of us will get to live forever. At some point—and, with any luck for me, it won’t be soon—we will share death.

[I feel compelled to note that this post was drafted last week. I now have a treatment plan (!). More on that another day, if I decide to keep writing.]