Cancer and war language are so often linked. Someone battles this disease. They are a warrior in combat day in and day out. Many people feel empowered by painting themselves as fighters. But I am not one of those people. Here are some of the reasons I steer clear of conflict-based language when it comes to my existence.
- This warrior will lose. War language seems to be more embraced in the “survivor” community. Perhaps because there is a sense of having fought and won. But, with stage iv, that’s not generally how this works. Most of us will die of cancer. We will be the failed warriors that perished during our valiant efforts. On some level, we have already lost. No thanks. My mortality knocks at my head on a daily basis. I don’t need words to remind me that my time is most likely limited and oh so hard. And that all of this will wind up in defeat. I’m here until I’m not.
- Why reinforce the challenge? There is already so much conflict navigating cancer. So why would I want to reinforce the brutality and decimation this journey brings? Someone once told me that what you choose to focus on will grow. It seems by setting myself up as a fighter, I will always be fighting. But I’d rather focus on the pockets in between. That’s where I get to find life. I am living with cancer.
- Personifying gives this thing more power than it deserves. Cancer is one of the only diseases that is highly personified. It’s treated like an outside entity, an opponent or a serial killer, you have to evade or spar with on a daily basis. Granted, that’s what it feels like most of the time but, the truth is, cancer is just wonky biology. There’s no face to it, no body, no one to punch or push or yell at. It’s a big sack of “they don’t know why you have it and other people don’t” along with the bag of unknown as to whether the treatment will work for any period of time. Because what they do know is whatever treatment you are on when you are metastatic, will ultimately fail. But back to the personification aspect – I’d rather not give cancer more power than it deserves. Having a body is a privilege. Being a person is a gift. Cancer doesn’t get to be that. Cancer gets to be the shitty cells not doing the gift of my body any favors.
- Just being a person is hard work. Following this logic, we are all warriors. Life is a challenge for anyone. Getting out of bed, no matter your circumstances, makes you a fighter. I am not looking to over-identify with this disease or trump any else’s experiences. We are in the human trenches together as one. I’d rather not extricate myself from that or set myself apart. Doing that would be a good way for me to foster entitlement, cut myself off from being of service and let depletion take over even in times of rebuilding. Let’s be human together and support each other during this weird, beautiful and often difficult ride we’re on.
- Facing life. During this journey, I try as much as I can to stay life facing. Words matter. If I am going to plug into vitality, vibrance and being, when I have the energy, this needs to be reflected in the words I use and accept. I know that my future reality will include hospitalizations, tears on the bathroom floor, challenges with mobility, the list goes on…all of that scares me. But if I can move through the good moments consciously and with a modicum of healthy denial, without giving too much verbal form to future gloom and doom, the current ride is way more pleasant. I find ease with easy language. I feel life with life facing terminology.
All of the perspective I’ve gained due to cancer is gone and I couldn’t be happier…
These past two weeks I have taken things personally, gotten attached to the wrong people, focused on what I don’t have in life and what I have not yet achieved with the anxiety of maybe never achieving those things. And I am loving every moment of it. Every pang of unfulfilled desire, of insecurity and inadequacy. Every feeling directed towards the fleeting and inconsequential.
This means that not only am I still alive but I have physically plateaued enough to mentally accommodate the mundane. I get the luxury of the human experience outside of just rebuilding and surviving day to day.
Of course ordinary human feelings don’t always feel good. Especially when they are born out of this delicious lack of life perspective most of us carry around. When we focus on the exact wrong things to fill voids. Chase those things instead of seeing and fully accepting what’s in front of us.
But the ability to go down that type of rabbit hole is a gift.
It’s also quite humbling. It levels us all, connects us in a way. It also has let me know that I have not completely evolved out of the problems I had when I pulled onto the cancer highway. There is a weird comfort in that.
Sometimes it can be exhausting to have more perspective than the average person so it is really nice to have the opportunity to know that I may not have as much as I thought.
One of the anxieties I faced early on post stage IV diagnosis was about the mark I was going to leave on the world before I pass. I come from a family of doers and achievers and have never fit into that box myself. My biggest accomplishments were overcoming emotional hurdles or connecting deeply with others. My diagnosis made me feel like I had nothing to show for my 40 some odd years and perhaps I needed to race to validate my existence. I needed to do something big, win an award, be a “someone” to have mattered.
So I started making plans…I got a literary agent and am writing a book about cancer but also about body ownership, sex and how to feel alive in the face of a terminal diagnosis. My best friend and I are working on a fictionalized version of my story for a tv show that tackles some of the same issues, including the levity of sex coupled with the heaviness of cancer/death. And I was invited to walk in this year’s New York Fashion Week for a lingerie designer, who designs intimates for women affected by breast cancer.
I figured if any one of these things hit, I would feel more validated as a human, more relevant as someone who has been here.
The first endeavor that came to fruition was the fashion show. I was excited and used the event as a way to announce to friends and family what was going on with me, as previously I had hid my cancer diagnosis from most people. It was important for me to “come out” not as a patient but as an exceptional woman who was doing something.
But a funny thing happened in New York…I stepped out of my comfort zone, walked in fashion week. My picture was in Elle magazine among other places. Had I arrived?
The answer is no…After the event, I looked at the pictures and write ups. I shared a few links on Facebook but quickly moved on. I found there was no self-identity wrapped up in the show, no extra validation for having made a splash somewhere for a few minutes. In fact, it had just become a cool thing I did, nothing more.
Suddenly the concept of external measurable accomplishments legitimizing my being had fallen away.
So now while I am forging ahead with all of the same projects, I am entrenched in the process, not the goal. The process is moment based. It’s feeling. It’s a tap into life force with no expectations or dilution into a nebulous and uncertain future. Aligning myself with process is aligning myself with living rather than the permission to do so.
My life is no longer calling for definition and neither am I. I am already defined – defined by my kindness and empathy and the way I choose to live my life every day. My ability to navigate murky emotional waters and connect profoundly to other people, while may not win me an award or notoriety, is how I exist in this world. It’s how I have always been and how I will exit. And I am suddenly ok with that.