When I think of living in cancer's shadow, my mind immediately jumps to the dark body that is my constant companion and seems to, paradoxically, grow stronger the brighter the light.
Mike Verano is a licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist and thymic cancer survivor with over 30 years experience in the mental health field. Mike has had articles published in national and international magazines and is the author of The Zen of Cancer: A Mindful Journey From Illness to Wellness. In addition, he maintains the blog, Confessions of a Pacifist in the War on Cancer. He and his wife, Kathy, live in Lanexa, Virginia.
“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.” - Helen Keller
The word “shadow” has an interesting an interesting. Webster defines it as, “the dark figure cast upon a surface by a body intercepting the rays from a source of light,” which sounds rather ominous. Its origin, however, is related to the word shade, and implies protection.
When I think of living in cancer’s shadow, my mind immediately jumps to the dark body that is my constant companion and seems to, paradoxically, grow stronger the brighter the light. Metaphors aside, it is that lingering sensation that any moment of joy, excitement, contentment I might be experiencing could, without notice, be extinguished by the return of the disease.
For me, this sums of the challenge of being a cancer survivor. How does one keep his or her face in the sunshine and not be enveloped by the dark days of this illness? I don’t think I’m the only one who has developed a, “try it and see if it helps,” mentality when it comes to staying with the light. From the momentary, and seemingly mundane, efforts at distraction, to the deeper, "What's the meaning of life?" expeditions, I’m drawn to both natural and artificial means of illumination. My hope is to banish the dark figure of cancer which, these days, I’m reassured by my last PET scan, lives only in my mind.
In spiritual, philosophical and psychoanalytical circles, there exists the theorem that the best way to overcome the darkness is not to run away, but to move into its heart. The Bible says, and other ancient writings concur, “. . . everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” In the East, this is described as the healing power of awareness. In psychotherapy, it means the soothing of mental anguish by exposing unconscious material to the conscious mind.
Despite ancient and modern guides, seven years into survivorship, minus the ray of hope of a “cured” diagnosis, leaves me wondering if I've been shadow-boxing. Have I been fighting an untouchable foe who has a counter for every move I make, or have I moved into a deeper awareness that it is the fight, itself, that drains the color out of life? Given the choice, I prefer Helen Keller’s approach of keeping my face to the sunshine over exhausting energy on trying to outsmart, outmatch or outrun a shadow. I seek shelter in the knowledge that the play of light and dark is a byproduct of the natural order of things and not a battle of good over evil. I find comfort in the ancient encouragement of the Buddha who told his followers, who were fretting over their futures, minus his light, “Be a lamp onto yourself.” Finally, I love the idea that, as survivors, we can also be beacons of hope to others who experience their joys eclipsed by a cancer diagnosis.
It appears, then, that I will continue to live in the shadow of cancer. However, it is my choice if that shadow defines me or, if by contrast, makes life shine all the brighter.