I have to confess that three years into thymic cancer survivorship I still have problems with the “war on cancer” mentality. I fully appreciate that the diagnosis of cancer brings on a reflexive “fight for your life” response. I find it hard, however, to reconcile the need for peace of mind, so essential to a healthy recovery with engaging in a battle against, what the author Siddhartha Mukherjee refers to as, “the emperor of all maladies.”
The other confession I have is that my resistance to the going to war with cancer is due to being a peace-loving guy, a pacifist, and, yes, even a wimp. The idea of fighting my disease never really occurred to me and seemed to make about as much sense as our war on terror. Fighting an enemy that was always in hiding, could strike at a moment’s notice and never fought fairly, seemed like no-win situation to me. Additionally, wars require enemies, and enemies require hatred. If that enemy is literally within, one runs the risk of friendly fire. It never made sense to walk around with the self-inflicted wound of anger, the ever-present shadow of hatred, while trying to recover from a major illness.
I understand the medical profession’s need to be aggressive in their approach to certain cancers. I understand their “take-no-prisoners” mentality that seeks to instill hope in both patient and loved ones. I also understand that the battlefield is my body, which harbors not only an alien invader but is also home to psychological and emotional states that are too often the casualties of not so friendly fire of cancer treatment. I know that in my case, I often felt more like a hostage to the medications, procedures, and tests than a warrior whose heroics would surely garner a purple heart. There were times when my panic-filled heart wanted to go AWOL and hide-out in the neutral territory of denial.
I realized that I was not the only one whose courage often waxed and waned, during a recent cancer support group that I’m privileged to lead. One of the members talking about her fears, insecurities and weaknesses said, “I get tired of people telling me I’m so strong for facing this, I don’t want to be strong all the time because sometimes I feel just the opposite.” Talk about having the guts to be honest; give that woman a medal of honor.
As a pacifist, literally “peace making,” I decided I would enter into an emotional peace treaty with my illness. While I surrendered my body over to surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, my mind sought comfort through the formal practice of meditation, yoga, Qigong, and other “alternative therapies” and found strong allies in family members, friends and even strangers. These helped to protect the borders of my sanity and conserve my energy for the unpredictable challenges that lie in wait.
Like all cancer survivors, I live with the awareness that my cancer could invade again, thereby calling me up for active duty. I have already decided to join the ranks of one of the greatest fighters of all time, Mohammed Ali, and declare myself a conscientious objector. I plan to stand my ground as a pacifist and a firm believer in the motto “Do no harm” particularly if the harm is heading my way. My previous experience assures me that I will have a ready-and-willing army of supporters to help soldier me on through the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual landmines ahead. Of course, this army will be carrying flowers, burning incense and chanting “Give peace a chance.” That’s why I love them so much.