Discovering Our Cancer Triggers


Hotter than a pistol, words and thoughts have the power to make us crazy. But we can determine how we move forward with them.

Cancer. Recurrence. MRI. Hospice. Mastectomy. Insurance Denied. Needle biopsy.

Words matter, but when it comes to surviving cancer, our thoughts about those words can shape the way we feel and even alter our drive to believe that we can be healed of our afflictions.

Guys like me with breast cancer face a unique set of encumbrances due to the isolation we are likely to feel along with the lack of public awareness with regard to our orphan disease. But we're not really alone in this regard. Cancer immediately quarantines all of us unlucky enough to be diagnosed and places a social and psychological barrier between those who have it, and those who don't.

And according to some recent studies, people with no sign of cancer in their futures can be as distressed by phantom triggers as people who have a confirmed diagnosis. It seems that these trigger words carry a sinister sort of power that often ignores the reality of our lives.

My first experience with cancer was through visiting my uncle in a hospital when I was eight years old. I was told he had stomach cancer. But to me, he seemed alert and full of life in that hospital bed. I clearly remember him saying to a nurse who was attending him, "Get this young man a milkshake!"

I heard my parents in some strange conversation talking about using part of a cow's stomach to patch up what the surgeons had taken from my uncle’s body. That was a language that triggered something uncomfortable in me as I grappled with the disturbing image, but a few moments later I had that sweet ice cream treat in my hands and my young and inexperienced life was once again content and free of any thoughts about the word "Cancer". I didn't know it at the time, but the way in which we focus on our thoughts, good or bad, can radically alter the way in which we experience our lives.

It would take another forty years before my cancer triggers returned in any significant way, but this time they reappeared with full emotional impact. My wife died of stage four ovarian cancer at the age of forty-eight, and suddenly words like "Widower" and "Burial" and "Abandoned" entered my list of triggers. Visual triggers were all around me too. The very house we had built in rural Oregon, her running shoes in the closet, our cat who seemed as lost as I was, had become a visual cancer trigger — and a daily reminder of all that had been taken from me.

It was about this time in 1997 when a woman friend who had studied meditation and mindfulness for most of her life, opened me up to the concept of words and thoughts and how they play such a significant role in how we actually feel. Life moved forward and I sold my home and began a long working career in California. My friend and I kept in touch however and often talked about the power of self-inquiry; of seeing how our lives are endlessly influenced by thoughts and words and triggers.

Seven years later we were married. Today I am a man with breast cancer, and I've become both aware and fascinated by the whole process of surviving not just cancer, but all the emotional trauma we carry via the thoughts we have. Perhaps better described as "the thoughts that have us".

Now when a new test is prescribed for me or a new pain shows up in my left breast to remind me that I am a cancer survivor, I can see the words that pop up on the computer screen of my busy mind. And like a teleprompter, they can invite me to repeat them out loud like a prepared speech about my own life and my personal survival, or I can watch them pass by like powerless phrases on glass monitors; gone from my view almost as quickly as they appear. And this is the way real life unfolds.

Triggers, after all, need someone to be triggered by them. I've learned to decipher the news of my life as a man with cancer in real time. Not only is it a better story, it is without a doubt a much easier read.

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