Have I survived yet? Part II

Yesterday I wrote “Our words inform our thoughts, and our thoughts shape our experience of reality.” That’s not an original idea. Theories about linguistic relativity have been around for over a hundred years. A thinker who formulated similar ideas in a way that is closer to what I mean was Victor Frankl. In Man’s Search for Meaning he wrote:

We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

“The last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances” is not so easy to exercise. Even in my situation, which is in no way comparable to what Frankl and others went through in the concentration camps, it is hard. “Attitude” is such an abstract concept. I don’t know how to change something that I cannot touch or even adequately define, so I go about it through the side door. I change the way I talk about a situation in order to change the way I think about it, and somewhere in there that thing called “my attitude” changes, too.

Yesterday I wrote that I don’t like to use the violent, militaristic vocabulary of cancer treatment. Those words are inextricably tied to violent, militaristic thoughts. I know that many people who have cancer direct most or all of their thoughts and energy to fighting the disease. It’s not up to me to comment on their choice, but it is not my choice. I choose not to have my internal energies directed to fighting a war, with the implication that one side or the other, me or the cancer, will be defeated. Will be destroyed by the other side.

I choose to direct my energies in a different direction, to living with the disease. This is very affirming for me in a number of ways. First of all, my energies are directed to living. The quality of my life, the content of my life, the choices of my life are at the top of my priorities. The cancer is relegated to an inferior place. I pay attention to it only when it starts impinging on my choice for life and then I take appropriate measures. The cancer does not have control of my life – I do.

With the quality of my life being my top priority, I naturally look at ways to improve it. I look at my diet, my exercise, my meditation, my work, my play, my relationships… I look at these things as partners in living, not as allies in war. Does it make a difference to my recovery? I don’t know. Does it make a difference to how comfortable I am in my skin? Absolutely.

But it also raises another question. It is usual to talk about “cancer survivors”. People survive war, natural disaster, physical and psychological trauma. No one survives life. (Yes, that’s a joke. It’s okay to laugh.) So tell me: Have I survived yet?

8 thoughts on “Have I survived yet? Part II

  1. This reminds me so much of an anecdote I heard about a Quaker who was receiving chemotherapy. The treatment wasn’t working, although the person next to him in the clinic had the same cancer and a similar profile. (There’s a mention of it in this article: http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/03/03/ep.seidler.cancer.mind.body/index.html)

    A counselor asked him what he thought of the therapy. He said, “The doctors tell me that the chemotherapy is waging war in my body, killing the cancer cells like little soldiers. I simply can’t accept that. I don’t condone war on any level, much less in my own body.” The counselor asked him to change the mental picture, to picture the chemotherapy putting its arms around the cancer cells and escorting them out of his body. His treatments began to show signs of effectiveness immediately.

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  5. Love the title of this! I’m glad this whole cancer survivor thing seems to work for so many people. It doesn’t work well for me, though. I don’t feel comfortable labeling myself as a survivor when the disease is still active. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with the label even if it were in remission (not that that’s likely to happen, prostate cancer rarely goes into remission). In my way of thinking you can never totally overcome cancer, completely rid your body of it. Coexistence is reality, even if it is an uncomfortable thought.

    • Thank you. 🙂

      I don’t call myself a survivor – not least because I still have active disease. You and I are both members of the Stage IV Club and it sounds like we have a similar approach to the idea of living with cancer. I would much rather expend my energy on living well than on going to war, a war that I cannot win, at that.

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