For some of us who are newly diagnosed with cancer, it's tempting to think that our own bodies have double-crossed us and let us down. "How can this body betray me?" is a question that may arise, especially for those of us who diligently focus on our health by eating well, exercising and not smoking or drinking to excess.
My wife of 22 years never took an aspirin. She was an aerobics instructor and personal fitness trainer. She never had a drink of alcohol in her life. She was a positive person in every respect and a professional singer and dancer. Cancer took her life at the age of 47. But she never felt like a victim of her cancer. Certainly her own body was not to blame, though it never made sense that a cancer cell would arise and proliferate inside her, and overpower the body she so carefully respected. But cancer is a diabolical foe.
And in my case, a competitive runner for 40 years but by no means a man overly concerned with health and wellness, it could have been easy for someone like me to think that his own body had betrayed him. Fortunately that thought never took hold.
We know with certainty that our thoughts can have a direct and negative effect on our bodies. Stress is the body's reaction to harmful situations – regardless if they're real or imagined. When we feel threatened for example, a chemical reaction occurs in our body that allows us to act in such a way as to avoid injury. Researchers tell us that during a stress response, our heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten and blood pressure rises. And none of this is helpful in fighting off a cold or flu, let alone a life-threatening disease like cancer.
The day I was diagnosed with male breast cancer was easily one of the most stressful days of my life. The combination of disbelief, fear and anxiety is a toxic blend but I was fortunate to have some good tools available to me. In fact, I was half-way through a year-long residency at a Zen Meditation Center in Hawaii. But a Zen practice is never about masking our fear or not caring that we might die soon. It's simply a practice of living moment by moment as an observer rather than reacting to our thoughts.
I could see that my fear and confusion was exactly what I should be feeling at that moment. After all, I had cancer. But I also recognized that I needed some help, and not just from my oncologists and my support group and my fellow cancer survivors. I needed to partner with myself. With my immune system. With my lymph nodes. With my body.
My choice was to forgo chemotherapy, a decision that required me to rely not just on the complimentary therapies I had adopted, but to collaborate with and trust my own body to be an ally in my recovery. I chose "me" as my own teammate, and so far the partnership has been a good one.
Almost four years have passed now, and as I relish each day of living cancer-free, I am forever grateful to this 67-year-old physical form – this perfectly imperfect body that has carried me through life.