Living With the Opened Mind of Cancer


Eighteen months into a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis, and my thinking--and life--has changed in an unexpected way.

This morning I returned after a month-long absence to a qi gong class that I usually attended once a week. I think of qi gong as tai chi’s even more gentle parent, although I don’t know enough about either exercise to know if that’s a good way to look at it or not. But I do know enough to move slowly and smoothly and to concentrate on energy.

Had you asked me even a year ago if I would have any interest in learning qi gong or tai chi or yoga or meditation, I would have laughed. My husband tells me that years ago I made fun of him for wanting to meditate.

He’s probably remembering correctly.

The truth is that even though I thought of myself as open-minded, I haven’t been quite as open as I imagined. Sure I could see the benefit of running or swimming or lifting weights, but slow it down a little and it just all seemed a little too “navel-gazing” and awkward.

I’ve learned over the past six months, though, that the effect of these exercises isn’t self-absorption, but clear-mindedness and peace.

I was thinking about that this morning as class began. A friend of mine had recently pointed out that everyone “lives in limbo,” not just the metastatic cancer patient, not only the cancer survivor nor the person suffering from any one of too many chronic diseases. I can’t say if she’s right or wrong, or even if there is a right or wrong.

But I do know I didn’t live in a world of limbo, waiting for scans to provide the parameters of my fate, prior to being diagnosed with cancer. I believed, naively and with a surprising lack of self-knowledge, that I would definitely be able to do whatever the heck I wanted to do.

As I thought about that, I considered again how cancer, besides at times giving me a somewhat more defined space in which to live, has changed me.

I didn’t have to think long or hard. The idea that I had hurried out of the house and was now patiently waiting for a brief meditation before the qi gong class, provided a perfect example of how cancer can change someone. Being led to an open mind, even if it had to be due to cancer, has been a relief for me. Besides bringing peace to my life with deeper thoughts and deeper love, it allowed me to experience new and old relationships while truly reserving judgment. And while I admit I still get frustrated and angry, sad and lonely, I also have learned that these emotions pass and don’t require me to do much more than acknowledge them.

And for the family I love so dearly, I am able to be reasonably comfortable expressing love and disappointment and concern for the future. The expanded view that cancer has given me has strengthened my relationships with my children most of all. Are they sad for me and scared for me? Of course. I am too. But suddenly I have the courage to see that love also expands with the willingness to see the truth about their wants and desires and dreams.

The opened mind of cancer. Can that be a thing?

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