"I’m not the cancer type."
I believed that sentence with all my heart, the heart being the organ that is supposed to end my existence–many, many, many years from now, of course. I must have said that sentence a hundred times, whenever the Big C came up in conversation. I don’t need to let the medical establishment squash my tits. I can handle these little moles that look as if they’re planning on becoming bumpy or ornery with some goop made of yucca plants. I’m healthy…essentially.
Not cancer. I’m not supposed to have cancer. Cancer is for people who…suppress their feelings…bottle things up…are afraid to grab life by the throat..smoke like chimneys…lie like wieners in the sun…live near polluted waterways…eat crappy food—
Oh, stop with the blame-the-patient stuff!!
Every disease goes through this phase until some Dr. Brightlight discovers what the necessary factor for the disease really is–I’m surely a bit more sophisticated than that!
No sooner is an illness identified as distinct from illnesses we know, than society constructs stories to explain its existence. People contracted pellagra because they were black and poor. It was no wonder that aesthetes became tubercular. Of course gays get AIDS–what would you expect? As for fibromyalgia, small wonder this synonym for malingering manifests mostly in the weaker sex. But for clearly contagious diseases that swiftly cut wide swaths through society, diseases invariably develop the first chapters of their story by blaiming the victims.
Had I fallen for this blame game when I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia? No way! When world-fibromyalgia expert Dr. Wolfe said to me, "Some people are depressed because they have fibromyalgia, and some people have fibromyalgia because they are depressed," I was so mad that I did a research project with over a hundred other FMSsies, learned science and statistics through the back door, wrote up papers and abstracts, had my research postered at international medical conferences. made a film, wrote a thesis, tried every remedy, and eventually came up with a theory of fibro’s causation and a practice for its management. By refusing to believe in the blame game, I turned myself into the world’s healthiest-looking FMSsy.
Lo and behold: now some real scientissts have begun to research the postulates of my theory–not bevcause of me or the theory, but because the illness is moving past the first chapters of its story, the chapters where beliefs get in the way of real and useful knowledge.
Why should cancer be any different? I thought. (Other than the risk, seeing that, if I’m wrong cancer will kill me.)
Seventeen minutes after arriving home from the internist’s office, I plunged into research on the computer. Like anyone, I wanted to know why. Why do I have cancer, since I’m not ‘the cancer type’?
Fact: there’s cancer in this body. Belief: I’m not the type. Facts: I live well. Cancer’s not rampant in my family. I am not that fat. I walk the dog. I don’t drink or eat bad stuff. Hardly any risk factors, right? Fact/Belief. Fact…belief….. Fact…rock-solid belief.
The lab must have made a mistake. Couldn’t I take the test again? I’d foolishly asked the GP. Not with twenty times too much blood in your sample, she’d said.
Then I toyed with the idea that the lab might have lost a decimal point somewhere, but even merely twice as much blood would have won me a colonoscopy prize. There was no way I could square my belief in myself as a non-cancerous type with what was undeniably happening.
I might as well examine facts, applying each one like sandpaper to my rock-solid belief..
What about family history? My mother’s family all live to be ancient curmudgeons–no worries there. But I resemble my father’s family much more strongly, and there is a saying, "Look at your mother; look at your father. Whom do you resemble? There is your fate."
One of my paternal uncles had died of cancer, I remembered. But he had smoked like a chimney all his life; so llung cancer could hardly have come as a surprise, surely?.When I’d met him while visiting the Netherlands more than forty years ago, his skin was the same gray as his suit, and I thought even then he wasn’t ong for this world.
The eldest brother, a florid, hail-fellow-well-met type who looked just like my father, died of the drink–presumably liver disease–in his seventies. My father died of smoking, too, at 67, an age that seeems frighteningly close now–his heart ended him in one thunderous attack. Yet the three borthers’ sister, who neither smoked nor drank, kept on choogling through age ninety.
I asked my mother about my paternal grandfather. I knew he had died at only 42, before my father was even born. I remember how frightened my father was of turning 42 himself, although he was not a superstitious man.. Had my Opa died in a car accident? One of those early cars with the "suicide doors"? Or was that my cousin? "Oh," my mother said, "He had stomach cancer."
So much for "no family history" of cancer. Those facts sandpapered the shine off my belief: the family I resemble has manifested cancer since at least 1917.
A book popped up in front of my face, from one of those outdoor bins where bookstores display books they are tired of seeing on their shelves. One dollar for Life Bridge, published in 1988, now a long time ago, medically speaking. There’s a whole page on colon cancer and a lot of information on cancer generally, From that book and the stuff online, I gradually came to understand that, inter alia, cancer and heart problems are not necessarily two separate things.
Another piece of sandpaper worn out. My belief in who I am is shrinking.
Advice from cancer survivors and cancer observers began filling the mailbox along with condolences, both of which seemed premature. Every other person seemed to have cancer, have survived it, or know someone with it. When a survivor called to invite me to tea, where she transferred her accrued wisdom about cancer to me, I felt my big fat useless belief crumble. She was a power sander to the thing. I should have worn a face mask, to avoid choking on the aerosol of my own willful blindness. When she finished with me, you could see right through that rock-solid belief, which had shrunk to a pebble, like an Apache tear. You can see through Apache tears, sort of, but you can’t be sure of what you’re seeing on the other side, and you’re not sure what use it will be, either.
Back home, I had a frank session with my mirror.
Fact: I haven’t been able to lose weight for at least two years, which is how long the surgeon thinks the cancer has been growing.
Fact: I look terribly tired, with haws like an overworked St. Bernard, in spite of having trained the body to get seven hours’ sleep daily.
Fact: there has been some funny business going on for months, maybe years, right at the spot where the cancer is–ranging from feeling a need to stretch that bit of that anatomy to, well, pain. Sensations I’ve ascribed to innocuous causes, like sitting for long periods.
Fact: yes, I’ve managed to kill the bits of skin that looked as if they wanted to flower into cancers, but I’ve ignored the possibility that they were already cancers when I zapped them–what does that do to my belief?
Fact: this month marks twenty years of unavoidable high stress for the organism I am. Stress is the one co-factor in colon cancer that is huge in my life. For twenty years, the annual stress score has been at least 600 points (where300 is the high-stress mark).
Fact: my generation, the Boomers, participated fully in the poisoning of the world. As a kid, I handled DDT and spread poison on our vegetable garden. Everybody I knew smoked in those days. I worked in a plastics factory for a while. Only weirdoes and sissies wore face masks around chemicals. Our teachers predicted science would give us all a life of leisure in which we’d never have to work, cook, or clean up again.Seriously, is it any wonder we’re falling ill after swallowing that guff? How can we not be the cancer type?
Fish come out of the water often raddled with cancers. If even our dogs get cancer in their short life span, how can we bigger, longer-lived mammals escape it?
Oh yeah, I forgot. Our belief that we are (a) not animals or (b) not like other animals or (c) smarter than other animals protects us from appreciating the effects of our toxic activities on our own bodies.
What do doctors think? I wondered. Do they still believ in a "cancer type"?
I posed the question obliquely to the surgeon. "I guess everyone’s the cancer type nowadays," I suggested.
He just smiled.
I tossed the Apache tear of my belief into the gravel bed in front of his office.
You know the saying, "If you meet the Buddha on the path, kill him." Doesn’t that mean, get rid of your beliefs? Belief seems to support certainty, customs and culture, I know, but in reality, belief just gets in the way of truth. Set yourself free: move those rock-solid beliefs aside to see the real landscape of your life.
It’s frightening. Every time I toss out a belief, my toes curl around the lip of the abyss. I teeter; forget to breathe. Recognising one’s mortality, witout hope or fear, is not for sissies.
Oddly, after such catharses, peace and comfort wrap around me, a little like the feeling after an NDE (near-death experience). What a gorgeous world! How sweet it is just to breathe!
True, because I am of this world, I will die to it one day. But not today.
Without beliefs, I have today. This day is all mine.