Battled Out: Cancer’s Civil War of the Self

I gave myself to sin, I gave myself to Providence, And I am there and […]

Ethan Richardson / 7.11.12

I gave myself to sin, I gave myself to Providence,
And I am there and back again, in the state I am in.
–Belle & Sebastian

The Good News is so called because of the comfort it brings, the rest it gives to “the weary and the heavy-laden.” But what about the heavy-laden who kind of love the weight? What about the restless who live off the adrenaline? Conditioning has worked out well, job offers are on your voicemail, things are busy, but busy is good. A call to rest, to lay your head down, to give up, doesn’t sound like the most peace-giving thing in the world–it doesn’t even really sound all that appealing. There are things to do! Let’s go! Words like passivity, surrender and retreat, sound like just one more thing in the way of the well-oiled machine that’s chugging along just fine.

There are seasons in life when this is case. You’ve got nothing bad to say about prayer, it’s just that prayer feels kind of irrelevant, there’s no need for talk of ‘hiding places,’ ‘cornerstones,’ ‘shadows under wings.’ The agenda is booked, decisions are being made, money’s actually staying in the bank account, relationships are maintained, diet is working, check, check, cha-ching.

Things can stay this way for a while, but they never really have for me. It’s hard imagining in the vernal heat but, for whatever reason, time’s up and the winter harvests it all, and suddenly everything’s been picked out or gone sour. And where did that warm spell go? The ruddy momentum? The adrenaline? Sometimes it takes a cold wind in the heart of summer to see again what the word surrender means.

So it is with Suleika Jaouad, a New York  20-something who, with two job offers and a promising future in her pocket found life-threatening cancer and a chemo treatment on the other line. The New York Times is publishing an amazing series of her blog posts, called “Life, Interrupted,” and in it you find a violent grace that has forced its wisdom upon her. Talk about life in death. This past week’s post: “Fighting Cancer, and Myself,” a coming to grips with the uselessness of fighting her illness, but the hope that comes in passive waiting.

Despite the clockwork of these cycles (start chemo, wait for symptoms, get sick, go to the hospital), at the start of every new round I convince myself that the outcome will be different. This time, I am going to be stronger than my treatment. This time, my mind will outwit my body. This time.

But over the past year, after 28 rounds of treatment, not once have I “won” this secret battle with myself.

The cancer world is awash in battle language. Our culture repeats these warlike phrases over and over, like mantras. Cancer books love to traffic in this take-no-prisoners language. They talk about cancer “warriors,” fighting and winning a battle for health. They even encourage patients to visualize chemotherapy as a sea of soldiers entering the bloodstream to fight off the enemy disease. In a lot of ways, it’s an attractive line of thinking. It’s the hero’s journey mixed with the glorification of war. It’s the us-versus-them theme — except in this case it’s us-versus-us. Cancer is one’s own civil war.

My reaction to challenges has always been to fight hard for what I want. I have always prided myself as a “doer.” I like to compete. I like to push myself. I like to win. When I started treatment, my plan was to take on cancer like I’d taken on everything else in my life.

But as much as I “battle,” I haven’t outwitted chemotherapy and its punitive, punctual side effects. As I write this, I am deep-in-the-bone tired, nauseated, and I haven’t left my bed in two full days. It is difficult not to equate sickness or weakness with a feeling of failure. A year and a half ago I was deciding between two job offers, while this morning I gave up on making a sandwich when I couldn’t open the jar of jam.

I am realizing that “beating” cancer isn’t about winning or losing. I wish it were, but it just isn’t.

I’ve decided that the real battle I need to fight is against this win-lose mentality. During the past few months, I’ve been fighting myself in many ways, succumbing to fear and anger about not being able to do what I once could.

But today I’ve decided that my challenge will be to develop a new brand of acceptance. Cancer has taught me that you can’t fight your way out of every problem. The solution is not to charge full speed ahead. It’s counterintuitive, but I try to remind myself that chemotherapy, too, is illogical on its face; you are poisoned in order to be cured.

Courtesy of NYT

I realize now that the experience of having cancer is more of a tricky balancing act: being proactive about your medical condition, while simultaneously accepting and surrendering to the fact that, at least for the time being, you can’t change your reality as quickly as you’d like to.

Acceptance is not giving up — far from it. But like a prisoner in handcuffs, you only waste precious energy by trying to wriggle your way free. With cancer, the best way out may just be patience.