Living As If: Life Without Cancer


Sometimes it is good to just take a break and pretend to live as if cancer never struck.

“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” -William James

Six years in to cancer recovery, I'm not able to say that I really remember what life was like before cancer. In my mind I have dreamy images of a life filled with sunny days and hardly a care. Back then, body aches were just the signs of overexertion, doctor's appointments were for stubborn colds and the inevitable breakdowns that come with getting older. Most of all, the "C word" was just that, a word not uttered that always happened to someone else.

My rational mind knows that even before cancer my life was filled with problems, worries, challenges, victories and defeats. Days of sunshine often gave way to dark and stormy moods. All in all, life before cancer was not that different from life after the diagnosis, with one great exception: now I have the realization that the bubble of existence could pop at any moment.

This awareness of the fragility of life, which I've come to see as transformative (the pearl in the muck of this disease), does not always provide a peaceful, easy feeling. While it has driven me deeper into my personal studies into the nature of who and what I am, it can also be a royal pain in the butt. During these times, when I've had it with the existential dilemmas, the metaphysical wrestling match between mind and spirit, I practice the technique that I call living as if.

As you've probably guessed, this mode of operating has at its core going about my life as if cancer never happened. This is not revisionist history, it's a deliberate effort to live out the story of my life, in this moment, minus the narrative of the cancer experience. There are four basic rules I try to follow when living as if:

  1. Denial is my friend and using it consciously means it’s not really denial.
  2. No looking back at pictures of myself during my hairless chemo days or reading past writings about cancer treatment.
  3. Complaining about the small stuff in life is permitted as it’s feels good to have as the biggest problem of the day be that the cat threw up on the carpet again.
  4. Whatever ailment takes center stage is quickly labeled as simply symptomatic of getting old.

I’ve tried to sell this formula for living as if to some of my psychotherapy clients with mixed results. A few see the intended irony that we are already living a life as if, and the only change I’m asking them to make is to replace a troublesome story with one that is either positive or, at worst, neutral. Most, however, will pushback with some form of wanting to "keep it real." This mantra of a culture weaned on the minutia of every happening, reinforces the belief that knowledge is liberating, no matter how painful. I will often respond with the line from Stephen Colbert, who mused, "The more you know, the sadder you get."

Personally, I find these retreats from the "reality" of living after cancer necessary to promote wellness. We survivors are often told not to let our cancer define us, but let’s be honest, it’s a Herculean task to keep the most traumatic, challenging, heart-wrenching experience from putting a frame around our existence. In many cases it’s the frame itself that actually gives our lives meaning. That being said, it’s the wise artist who, on occasion, paints a new picture in that frame. There is a great release that comes from allowing the freedom of expression to venture into the surreal; to distort reality to the point where the nightmare of cancer gives way to the dream of pure being.

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Dr. Kelly Stratton
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