Still Life and Cancer: Teachings from a Mystery Novel

September 20, 2018
Jane Biehl Ph.D.
Jane Biehl Ph.D.

Jane is a ten-year survivor of a very rare form of cancer Myelodysplastic Syndrome. She has enjoyed several exciting careers including a librarian, counselor, teacher, and writer. She loves to write about surviving cancer, overcoming hearing loss, and her hearing ear service dog, Sita.

After a cancer diagnosis, is there anyone to blame?

A favorite mystery author for many readers is Louise Penny, who writes about her featured detective, Armand Gamache. I have several friends and relatives who kept recommending these books. I decided to read the first one in the series when I visited Montreal, where the fictional characters live. The book is titled “Still Life,” and I am hooked!

As a writer, one of the aspects that fascinate me is how the title of any book is chosen. In a special scene, Detective Gamache is talking to a psychologist recently retired after 25 years as a therapist. She explains that she often felt many people actually enjoy their problems and use them as an excuse for not growing up and moving on. She coined the phrase “still life” to describe how they are always waiting for someone to save them.

She continues on to say that these people don’t look to themselves for solutions. Instead they look to others, so they prohibit any change. Gamache theorizes that change is inevitable for all of us and we should not be afraid.

What a profound philosophy of life coming from a mystery title! The more I pondered over this book, the more I realized how “still life” can apply to cancer survivors like me.

Cancer patients are hit seemingly out of nowhere with a scary diagnosis. The mere word “cancer” is terrifying, though many kinds of cancer are treatable. Shaken out of our comfort zone, we no longer have a still life. Sure, we can blame others for many life crises such as the way our parents raised us, the terrible boss who causes so many problems or the abusive partner who makes our live miserable.

But cancer is a different animal. We may try to blame genetics; the environment; undue stress or an unknown spirit in the universe. Initially, many of us may do that. We can also turn to blaming our doctors for not finding the cancer sooner or for doing the wrong treatments. The chemo makes us so sick, and we blame the pharmaceutical companies for the side effects. On and on it goes.

But ultimately the solution is in us. Sometimes we look at our own lifestyle and chide ourselves for drinking too much, smoking too much, eating the wrong foods or not exercising.

I will be forever grateful to my oncologist for telling me that there was nothing I did to cause this cancer. We all know that some people can abuse their body and be perfectly healthy, while others do everything right and still get sick. It often boils down to one single cell that mutated. However, I certainly improved my lifestyle realizing it could help me to live longer and better!

We cancer survivors are a hearty bunch. Once we get past the initial shock, we look inside ourselves for the solution to cope with the changes in our lives. We reach out to others, join support groups, encourage people personally and on social media. I adore the many wonderful people I have met on my journey. I belong to a patient advisory council at my hospital and have met the bravest people I know. I also love the people in the Livestrong program at the YMCA and feel privileged to have them in my life. One thing we all have in common is we can’t live still lives. We are forced to change, examine ourselves and our lifestyles and develop our own solutions. Cancer is a terrible illness to have, but it can teach us to move on and that is an invaluable lesson.

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