Fire Walker: The Initiation of a Cancer Survivor

Not only are we given a health crisis, we're faced with giving it meaning. What to make of such a mind-numbing diagnosis? Where to turn when life itself it turned upside down?

"In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer." - Albert Camus

“You’re going to walk through the fire, and you’re going to be OK.”

I will never forget these words. They were spoken by a co-worker who had learned that my CT scan had confirmed that there was a mass nestled under my sternum that was not supposed to be there. She pointed to a scar on her right cheek and said, “I got this for my 39th birthday — cancer of the mouth.” She hugged me with the kind of the hug that says, “You’re one of us now.”

I was humbled by her openness and compassion but I was also confused in my denial. What fire? There was no fire, simply some blob that would turn out to be a mere smudge from the radiologist’s finger. Or, perhaps, there would just be the low burning ember of, “Well, Mr. Verano, it’s not supposed to be there but it’s not going to hurt to leave it alone.”

Not only were my co-worker’s words prophetic, they also pointed to a profound truth. This truth is that life after a cancer diagnosis is never the same, and the challenges ahead are initiation rites of the highest order. Only one who had crossed that blazing bed of charcoal briquettes can possibly look someone in the eye and, without a hint of insincerity, say, “I’ll see you on the other side.”

There are many ways that illnesses are interpreted. From the "will of God," to random acts of unkindness. Not only are we given a health crisis, we're faced with giving it meaning. What to make of such a mind-numbing diagnosis? Where to turn when life itself it turned upside down?

It’s often said that, while our joys make life sweeter, it’s our sufferings that define who we are. Despite appearing hardwired for good times, it seems true that it is our pain, not our pleasure, which pushes us toward the “invincible summer.” That being said, the road less traveled that is the cancer journey leaves many of us thinking, I learned a lot about myself going through cancer, but I would have much rather had another teacher.

Personally, I'm not wired to be a fire walker and crossing the hot coals of this illness drawn on resources that I’m certain are not in my DNA. Long before the attempts to put a philosophical cage around my anxiety, there were the day-to-day challenges of treatment. Even now, I'm at a loss to explain where all the strength, courage and endurance came from, however, I know I borrowed heavily from loved ones and others who have felt similar flames.

Early in my treatment, I often found myself repeating my co-worker’s words like a mantra. Especially the “you’re going to be OK” part. It had an immediate calming effect, the source of which was much deeper than mere positive thinking. It was as if I was in contact with the spirit in her that had already sorted out the questions, fears and disjointed thoughts that were rattling around in my head. This is the profound gift offered by survivors. Each one shines his or her own light and illuminates the path ahead and separate struggles become one.