Is it possible to actually get good at living with our disease?
I’ve noticed through my own experience with male breast cancer and in talking with others who are challenged by various forms of cancer, that there is a kind of “maturity” that comes with the practice of surviving our disease. It seems to be a natural sort of evolution that guides us in our expedition through sometimes turbulent terrain, and it’s this very growth through repetition and familiarity that gives us the wherewithal to forge ahead.
I suppose the old metaphor of learning to ride a bicycle is appropriate here. We keep trying and falling down a few times until we get it. In developing the skills and confidence for riding around on two wheels, it’s also important to note that after a while, we just get tired of falling down over and over again.
Cancer is like that, too.
I have been cancer-free for almost three years. During the first twelve months after my diagnosis and mastectomy surgery, I spent a significant amount of energy “getting my things together,” preparing for an uncertain future and looking everywhere for options and ideas to eradicate my disease and reduce the amount of “recurrence anxiety” that many of us feel.
Time really does heal. And experience does indeed add to our confidence and certainly to our resilience when it comes to surviving cancer. When we are given the gift of growing older, of living yet another day by pushing back the disease that threatens to take our lives away, we become better warriors.
Working as a stage magician most of my life, I had an opportunity to visit kids with cancer in a variety of settings. Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) in California agreed to let me visit some very sick kids many years ago. Because some of the children were considered to be “high risk” for infection, it was agreed that I would not visit individual rooms but would meet the kids in a secure area of the hospital for an informal magic show.
To this day, I have a lingering and emotionally charged memory of them, mostly in wheel chairs, with IV lines and bandages, fully engrossed in the mystery of the magic, and leaving behind, if only for an instant, the reality of their various cancers. It was astonishing to me that these children had adapted to the actuality of their life-threatening illnesses in such a profound and insightful way. And it wasn’t because they failed to understand the seriousness of their disease. In fact, they often talked about the possibility of dying in cognizant, uncomplaining ways, without any hint of surrender.
I wonder sometimes if there is a connection with that childlike innocence and trust that I experienced in the children long ago, and the ability we have as adults to grow into our cancer stories. How is it that we learn to cope more efficiently and march steadfastly forward with a new, and perhaps quieter tempo in our quest to leave cancer behind?
Releasing control, living in the moment, trusting in life — these are the qualities I see in many seasoned cancer survivors, just as I saw in those kids, and it comes with practice and patience and time. And if you’re like me, a cough or bump or unexplainable symptom may knock you down now and again, bringing back the memories of your past and rekindling the fear that cancer might return.
And when we do that enough times we probably get tired of falling off that bicycle. We get back on the seat. We start peddling. And if we can trust in the healing power of “us” we can once again be rolling down the road of health and healing, fully engaged in the ride of our life.