What Is the Message in My Cancer Pain?

A cancer survivor shares a surprisingly simple idea.

I spent my entire life chasing light. I sidestepped conflict and was revolted by ugliness. I rejected anger and turned a deaf ear to raised voices. I shunned confrontation and I avoided pain whenever possible.

And my life, as a result of this attempt to stifle those parts of living that hurt, was suddenly overflowing with all of it.

It was Carl Jung who first suggested, “That which you resist, persists.”

So when cancer was detected in my male breast just two years ago, I had the opportunity to drop into my old patterns, perhaps to deny my fear of dying, or my dislike of discomfort. I had every chance to mask my symptoms with the drugs that were available; the anti-depressants, the pain meds, the sleep meds and benzodiazepines and I could have easily taken that route.

But I was lucky. I was living full-time in residence in a Zen Buddhist Temple high in the Hawaiian jungles. I, along with my wife, had devoted a year of our lives to this deep study of Zen Meditation. I was diagnosed with breast cancer, had a mastectomy and recovered—all in a short period of time in this true paradise of nature and healing.

So the question I ask is: What happens when we just “sit” with our cancer?

Zen Meditation is known as “sitting”. It’s what we do. It’s nothing special. There are no trances or magic. We sit. We sit with what is at that very moment. The pain or fear, the joy or contentment, the living or dying—it’s all there. We deny nothing.

If anyone asks me, “What should I do with my newly diagnosed cancer?” I would answer it this way:

“Sit with it.”

There are so many words, so many ideas, so many formulas, so many theories.

Nothing is more confusing than our attempts to make sense of the condition we share called “cancer.”

But here’s the truth. We all have ideas of which tactic to take in our quest to extend our lives. The scary part is it’s us, those with the disease and not those treating the disease, who must ultimately make the decisions that may or may not give us some more years or days in our lives. Your oncologist, your family member and even your hair stylist will have ideas. But in the end, the decisions belong to us.

And it’s the same for all of us with cancer, and it’s never easy to do.

So I suggest we get our news, do our research, talk to trusted medical professionals and even our hairdresser, who likely has nothing but the best intentions.

And before making those choices that so often include thoughts of pain, discomfort, fear, anger, confusion and the rest, just a take moment to be with it. With all of it. And sit.

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