A Pacifist in the War on Cancer


Being a pacifist in the war on cancer stands for striving for inner peace and reducing the amount of stress associated with a life-altering illness.

"I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist. I am willing to fight for peace." - Albert Einstein

Recently, I was asked to explain what I meant by identifying myself as a pacifist in the war on cancer. Both my answer and subsequent response from the questioner made me realize that I need to come up with a better explanation.

Let me start by pointing out what being a pacifist in the war on cancer, or PWC, does not mean. It does not mean:

  • Staging sit-ins at local oncology offices and telling patients to stop their chemo drugs in favor of herbal remedies.
  • Protesting in front of a hospital's radiology department, “Hell no, we won’t glow!”
  • Refusing medical procedures on the grounds that, “They’re not my thing.”
  • Becoming a welcome mat for the disease.

Most importantly, a PWC does not look down on those who use war metaphors to gather the courage to face cancer.

Being a PWC stands for striving for inner peace and reducing the amount of stress associated with a life-altering illness. It means creating a safe-haven, a sacred space for healing and wellness, rather than a battlefield littered with land mines and hostile encounters at every turn. PWC is really a state of being rather than a state of doing. One can avail oneself to all means necessary to treat cancer, while at the same time adopting an attitude of humility over hostility and compassion over combat.

This is not to suggest that one surrenders, in the normal sense of the word. There is no putting down of arms and admitting defeat. Neither is there retreating to some quickly constructed “happy place” where the real emotions of anger, fear and sadness are masked over with the slippery smile of, “I’m fine.” Surrender, in the PWC world, is, as the psychiatrist and author Sheldon Kopp once wrote, to “raise your right hand against fear: extend the other in compassion.” It's taking the stand that a war fought within has the self as the first casualty.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that associates pacifists with cowards. For the most part, I’m OK with that. As someone who struggles with anxiety, when it came to cancer, I was scared to ... well ... life. Fear drove me to ask for the thoughts and prayers of friends, family and strangers. I was afraid to my core that after surviving open heart surgery to remove the thymic tumor growing in my chest, I would not survive the combined hit of radiation and chemo therapies. More to the point, I was terrified that if I declared war on cancer, I would awaken a sleeping giant and rather than emerge as a conqueror enjoying the spoils, end up a refugee trapped in the ravaged landscape of my body.

The other reason that I’m OK with the misconception of pacifism is I know there is something courageous about taking a stand with a plowshare rather than a sword. It takes strength to stay in harmony with life while the body is experiencing a calamity just as throwing oneself into the din of the battle is a hero’s/heroine’s journey. This journey is shared by all survivors, whether they go to war, or take the stance of a conscientious objector: All deserve Medals of Honor and Purple Hearts. All deserve the end to hostilities.

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