I think our first response to pain – ours or someone else’s – is to self-protect. We protect ourselves by looking for someone or something to blame. Or sometimes we shield ourselves by turning to judgement or by immediately going into fix-it mode…Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.
Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
(As with all of this blog, everything is from my perspective and is my opinion. I don’t consult or have Eva proof-read it first. The following are my observations of Eva, and as someone who has known her intimately for 17 years, I extrapolate nuances and meaning from the conversations we have had but may not have directly discussed.)
Not long after Eva was diagnosed with cancer, in one of our more positive and hopeful moments, she decided that it was going to be important to decide how she relates to cancer. Should she attack it head on – the ‘F**k Cancer’ approach – and drum up energy and motivation and aggression to carry her on through this? Or should she take a passive-aggressive approach, resenting it, angry at it, not wanting it, but scared of it, fearful that it is a power that she could not stop?
The former approach appears, to me, to be one that could be motivated to some extent by fear; fear of loss or of defeat; fear of others (children, spouse) losing the sufferer; fear of an unknown and uncontrollable future. And it is a reaction against that fear; an adamant and angry retaliation against fear, that relies on adrenaline and the stress response – the sympathetic nervous system – to push the cancer patient through the coming months of awful treatment and into the uncertain decades to come. This is a really understandable response, and is very common, and something I could readily imagine adopting were it me in the position of being diagnosed with cancer.
The latter approach, that of a more passive-aggressive attitude, is again, arguably, driven by fear. This time the fear results in more of a ‘flight’ rather than a ‘fight’ reaction to an unwelcome intruder. But underlying the flight and denial and resistance is a belief that ultimately this beast is not ‘beatable’ (unlike the former approach which approaches it as an adversary which will be beaten into submission with enough energy, positivity, healthy living, medical adherence, etc etc). This passive-aggressive approach to fear is like a wounded animal which knows that its death may be approaching, but a reflex reaction results in a lashing out at the attacker. But a futile lashing out, without hope of escape. This too is understandable, and we all have moments in days, or days in weeks, where we feel like this. We feel caught and stuck, and the anger circles around with no way to get out, and is directed inwards.
But is there another way? A way of accepting the facts, that separates itself from religious hang-ups of punishment and guilt and attributing a greater, divine meaning to suffering; that doesn’t live in the ‘why me?’ syndrome of the West, which is, on the whole, so alien to physical suffering and disease; that doesn’t continue to identify primarily with the deep feelings of hurt and loss and sadness and anger and fear and isolation and uncertainty that are the natural part of the diagnosis and treatment of serious medical condition?
Eva felt that, for her, it was important for her to make friends with her cancer. It is part of her body. It is not a parasite or something that has been inserted into her to cause her misery. It is a collection of her own cells which have mutated; the same types of cells which make up the rest of her body which she loves and values and enjoys. She is also aware that even when (!) she makes a full recovery from this post chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy, and hormone therapy, her cancer will still be a part of her. It is likely she has a strong genetic predisposition to it; it’s literally in her DNA. She is not, and will never, be defined as being a breast cancer sufferer, for she is much more than that. But her body will be marked by it in visible ways. She will be aware of the possibility of cancer for the rest of her life in a way that someone who has not had it at an early age perhaps cannot conceptualise. For her, either berating her cancer, or being angry at it, or attacking it, or employing martial rhetoric towards it, is incongruent with how she aims to conduct the rest of her life. She does not want to pour energy and invest unnecessary emotions in a disease process. She does not want to be in a mental battle against the cancer itself.
So what would happen if she treated cancer less as an alien invading force, and more as an old friend? In fact, the genetic coding for it has been around as long as she has so depending on the philosophical stance one adopts towards the point at which one commences existing, it is an ‘old’ friend (despite the macroscopic evidence only having been present for a matter of months).
And what about other areas of our lives? What about if we took the fear and anger and sadness and loneliness that we all experience and instead of attacking it or lying down in a defensive but desperate posture before it, we welcomed it? “Hi anxiety, nice to see you again. I know you make me feel awful just now – my heart’s racing, I’m sweating, I want to run to the toilet, and the future is terrifying – but you and I have been here before. Let’s discuss this and then move on.”
Of course Eva would much rather not have a friend called cancer. Most things (and people) in life we can turn away from or distract ourselves from or avoid altogether if they are bothering us too much. But some things we cannot.
These techniques are not learned overnight; Eva and I have done a lot of research and reading and personal therapy to try and learn some of these tools, and it only works sometimes. But just now, Eva wants to conserve the energy she does have to be with her children when she can; to enjoy our time as a family; to not feel like every trip to the hospital is a war statement or an act of aggression. She wants to keep her mind in a place where she can live in the here and now. This is not easy, and we both struggle with this on a daily basis. But we are trying to practice acceptance, non-attachment, non-blaming and non-judgement. Of course it’s not the only way to do this; it’s just our way of trying to deal with it in the silence, between us. It’s us trying not to self-protect to the exclusion of others and the ongoing beauty and goodness and life to be lived around us.
Hello cancer, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence