I saw a photo on Facebook this morning, a pink wristband with the words “Cancer Sucks,” followed by a suggestion to “share if you agree.”
I couldn’t do it.
Cancer has been a profound presence in my life these past two years. Cancer killed my husband. Cancer has left my own body weakened and scarred. And yet, I cannot agree with “Cancer Sucks.”
Don’t get me wrong. I do not like cancer. I pray a cure for the disease is found and that the suffering of chemotherapy, radiation, invasive surgeries, etc. become a distant memory soon.
And yet, cancer has been an amazing teacher for me.
Charlie was diagnosed with colon cancer on Valentine’s Day, 2012. He was given six months to live and died eighteen months later. Charlie was a master of life. I say that because he never once complained. He never once let cancer or his impending death make him sad or angry. He lived every day of those eighteen months as if it were a gift, a special holiday of experience and joy.
During the time I cared for him, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I cried and threw fits, got depressed and scared. I am not yet a master. But what a profound experience to have this disease, to see it hurt me, and to be living with someone who had an even worse disease be mentally unaffected by it.
I remember the last time Charlie saw two of his oldest friends. They traveled from out of state to visit for the weekend. Charlie was bald from chemo, so weakened he could barely walk, and so sick he could not eat. Before his friends arrived, he asked me to help him from his hospital bed to his wheelchair in the living room where I draped a blanket over him to cover his diaper. The diaper was a necessity because of bleeding from his tumor, and Charlie was too weak to bother with other clothes.
When his friends arrived there were no complaints, no talk of doctors or treatments or pain. All I heard that day was laughter, stories, jokes, and even plans for the future.
Charlie tired easily and asked his friends to help him back to bed. He felt no shame about being helped back to the hospital bed in our bedroom. He simply accepted what was. The laughing and stories continued throughout the evening while Charlie’s friends sat on our bed and Charlie joined in the story telling as often as he could.
Charlie was not a Buddhist, though he had studied Buddhist philosophy. And yet he had mastered two of the most fundamental practices in the Buddhist tradition: let go of “aversion” by accepting what is, and let go of “grasping” by being grateful for what is.
Even death could not upset this master. Charlie was in the VA hospital when his organs began shutting down from the extensive cancer. He said to me one day, “I’m ready to die.” He said it as a simple statement, as if he were saying, “I’m hungry.” I’m just ready to die.
I wasn’t ready. I cried. I insisted doctors do more. I struggled. But in the end, I learned the lesson Charlie and cancer were teaching me. I brought him home, as he wished, and I held his hand as he let go of this life and moved on to some new adventure, which is how he always described death to me.
Do I wish Charlie hadn’t had cancer? Do I wish he hadn’t died? Yes, desperately so. I also wish I didn’t have to go through my own experiences with cancer. Just like I wish I hadn’t been on a crashing airplane. And yet, I cannot hate cancer because I have learned the most profound lessons of true spirituality from it. And from Master Charlie.
I am not suggesting we stop fighting cancer. Acceptance doesn’t mean giving in. Accepting means fighting, and fighting hard, but fighting (and this is the important part) without hate.
We are presented with two options when faced with obstacles such as cancer and even death. We can fight with fear and hatred; we can be upset and angry. I did those things, and guess what? They didn’t help me at all. In fact, those reactions just cause me more pain.
Or we can fight with love, acceptance, and gratitude. From someone who lives in the trenches of this fight still, I can tell you this option is the only one that will truly free us from from suffering.
I was so inspired today. Inspired by many people. But what really inspired me (and this is hard to say) was me. Why is it so hard for some of us to truly appreciate and respect ourselves? That’s the question I am left with today.
Here’s a brief reminder of what I’ve dealt with this year so far: I cared for my husband, Charlie, full-time as he suffered from and then died from colon cancer. During this time, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a double mastectomy in April and reconstruction surgery two weeks after losing my partner/teacher/lover. The physical pain alone was “unbearable.” I put that in quotes because it turns out I survived it. Then I fell ill and spent nearly six weeks mostly alone mostly in bed with horrible flu-like symptoms.
I have learned so much. And what I have learned is surprising. What I’ve learned is that giving, sharing, loving is THE ONLY road to recovery.
What’s not so easy to understanding is that giving requires a receiver.
I have been thrust into a position in which I can only receive. I did not want to be here; I do not like being here. But when I could not get out of bed to eat, I had two choices: let someone help me or die. I have to admit the later option was tempting. I’m not sure I want to live in a world without my loving husband; I’m not sure I want to live with suture scars and pain. I’m just not sure.
But one thing I am sure of this: when I get rare and beautiful opportunities to help others—I feel bliss. Pure and simple bliss.
From my sickbed, there was little I could do. I couldn’t make things or do things. I couldn’t go visit people. I couldn’t offer much. But what I could offer was time. I could read, edit, consult, talk. And when I did those things, my own suffering disappeared. It was magic.
I spent hours editing my friends’ book. In those moments when I was engaged in helping someone else, I had no fear, I felt no pain, I felt no loneliness. And so I learned. I learned what so many powerful teachers have shared with us on this planet. Jesus, for example, just gave. Mother Theresa gave. Mahatma Gandhi gave. Nelson Mandela gave. These amazing people suffered horrible atrocities, but they didn’t give up. They gave.
I do NOT consider myself in the ranks of these super heroes. But I have learned WHY they did what they did. They gave because that’s what makes a human being fulfilled. That’s what sustains us. Even when we are at the receiving end of giving—a place MUCH harder to be than the other. When we participate in giving, loving, caring, sharing we are at our highest potential as living beings.
I loved being a giver. I loved taking care of Charlie through his illness more than any single thing. Kneeling in the bathroom on a tile floor wiping up blood and feces was the most profound experience I could imagine. Because I was acting out of love in the worst fucking conditions. I was horrified. I was scared. And yet, I did what was needed to take care of my Love.
Now that his body is gone, I find myself paralyzed by grief. I so want to clean his wounds. But I am still learning. And the next lesson seems to be one of receiving. What is it like to have another person feed you? What is it like to depend on a friend? This is my lesson now.
I pray I learn it well. I pray we all get the beautiful opportunity to learn both sides of human suffering—how to give and how to receive. And I pray that your experiences with each are gentle. Regardless, we must learn.
I read an article the other day about physicians and how different they die from the general public. Physicians, who are diagnosed with cancer for example, don’t seek curative care. They just die peacefully. That was jest of the article.
I studied meditation for 10 years, and have taught it for seven.
And in the last year I have been bombarded by hardship, one after the other. Emotional, physical, and spiritual.
A friend of mine recommended I listen to a radio broadcast today about patients of breast cancer. It was a New York breast reconstruction surgeon (Dr. Feingold) and his PEP (patient enhancement program) coordinator (Mollie Sugerman).
As I listened to them talking, especially the PEP coordinator, I couldn’t help but HATE the fact that I was trained as a meditation teacher.
Because one of the foundations of her program of helping women in my situation is, of course, meditation and guided imagery.
And the problem is I KNOW THAT SHIT! I knew it before I was diagnosed with breast cancer; I knew it before my breasts were amputated. I knew it before my husband died of cancer. And yet, here I am, in a state of total fear and illness.
I keep thinking my “practice” of meditation should help me. Right? That’s what I taught for so many years. And as I lie in bed, completely weakened and fearful, watching yet another episode of yet another TV series, I don’t think it can help me. After all, I knew it before all this shit happened, before BRCA, before mastectomy, before my husband’s death. And yet all of those horrible things have happened. And I am wrought with grief and fear.
So today, the quote “Physician heal thyself!” has been running through my mind. I couldn’t remember the reference, and actually thought it dated back to ancient Greece with the invention of modern medicine, so to speak, Hippocrates and all that jazz.
Imagine my surprise when I looked up the quote and found it was from the book of Luke in the Bible, attributed to none other than Jesus. (Yes, I’ve forgotten most of Bible Studies—sorry Mrs. Brooks; you were a great teacher.)
(I am not comparing myself to Jesus, I’ll leave that to the legendary John Lennon—I admire them both.)
The title of the chapter from which this quote comes is “Tested in the Wilderness,” Luke 4.
As the story goes, Jesus had fasted for 40 days. Note, it did not say he suffered from diarrhea or vomiting. It did not say he mourned the loss of his beloved partner or worried about paying his bills. But I suppose the point is to show us that he too suffered. As we do. And for a long time.
Afterwards, in the story, the devil comes and tempts Jesus with bread, castles, wealth, and power. Jesus denies these and says instead that he gives himself to God not to temptation. He also said something like, “Don’t test the Lord.” And from the context, this seems to mean that Jesus trusts God to do what is best and refused to make a stone into bread so he could feed himself. He chooses to suffer what God intends, even though he could, perhaps, do otherwise.
Now Jesus was a very cool and powerful dude. He had a choice—or so it says in the story.
But those of us who are suffering now. We don’t seem to have the choice, right? We suffer—pain, sorrow, loss, lack—and we don’t have the option of changing a rock into bread so we can eat and feed our friends/family who are hungry.
Then Jesus goes back to his hometown and speaks a prophecy about how you can’t be prophet in your hometown. He quotes some references (so it must be legit) and then says the famous words (again I paraphrase): Surely you will tell me ‘physician heal thyself! Do in your hometown what you’ve done elsewhere!’
To which he responds to his own thoughts by saying (much more eloquently): No.
The people of his town are furious, and Jesus gets driven out as a heretic.
And I’m left wondering why that quote was running through my head all day?
As I think about it more and more, I wonder if this isn’t a metaphor for our own minds. Perhaps we can’t “Heal Thyself.” Perhaps we (and by “we” I mean people who have studied, trained as healers, meditators, spiritual practitioners so that we can help others) can’t heal ourselves. Perhaps, as Jesus did, we have to throw ourselves into the fire of our own destiny, and all the pain it carries with it. Perhaps we can help others (in other towns) and yet must also burn through the pain of our special journey.
And maybe what this story of Jesus is meant to tell us is that THAT’S okay.
I don’t know. But I wonder.
I fear becoming like a doctor who knows so well the workings of cancer refuses treatment and just dies (not that I oppose that choice–I believe we all have the right to make those decisions, and having watched a man suffer the effects of chemotherapy, I’m not sure I wouldn’t make the same decision in certain situations–depending. But matters of the heart/mind are different. Giving into despair and sadness when you know you have an option–that’s what I’m talking about.)
It’s difficult to see how the practice of meditation is helping me during this time of suffering, perhaps because it’s become such an integral part of my being that I can’t distinguish it. I don’t feel different (or less pained) after meditating . . . and that’s part of why I sometimes I wish I didn’t know it so well. I wish I could have a drink of meditation and feel buzzed like a rookie instead of just the familiar gentle soothing of a seasoned drinker.
Which leads me to understand more deeply that meditation is not a miracle cure. It’s a relationship. At first it’s exciting and stimulating. The unknown carries with it excitement about the possibilities (for meditation to cure, heal, change, fix). The more time we spend together, the more comfortable we become—the less excited perhaps, true, but also more supportive and solid.
And so, in this midst of what feels like horrible pain, I’m not meditating. I’m floating on the foundation of meditation that took years to develop. And I’m trying to remind myself that though the exciting new idea of meditation will not help me now, my relationship with it holds me back from the brink of despair. And as with Jesus, my faith keeps me close to The Divine at a time when it would be so easy to feel completely abandoned.
When Charlie was here, a trip to Costco was a joy for us. He would stop and look at all the new gadgets, make a special trip through the “sweets” isle and wonder at the treats, and never failed to try to find some special treat to buy me. Many times we would run into people he knew. It was kind of amazing how often we ran into old friends or colleagues of his. He would spend all the time needed to visit, catch up, and re-connect.
We didn’t go often, but once or twice a month, we did a “Costco” run to stock on the necessities of “bulk” consumerism: toilet paper, paper towels, organic vegetables (me), wine (me), and whiskey (Charlie).
As I look back, I can use Costco as a measurement for the progression of his illness. Before cancer, he picked up everything, loaded everything in the car, suggested I stay in the house and put stuff away while he carried everything up the steps into the house.
As cancer began to take its toll, he held onto the basket to walk; he didn’t resist when I offered to lift heavy items. I knew how difficult that was from him.
Later, he let me get a basket and bring it to car so he could use it to walk. He never once accepted the help of a walker or a wheel chair. As the effects of the chemotherapy took their toll, he couldn’t feel his feet. But he would walk down the stairs, watching his feet to make sure they were on a step as he moved. Independent and strong—always. Using a basket, he would walk slowly through the store, and eventually he never let go of the cart until we were back at the car where I would load all our purchases as he sat in the passenger’s seat.
Once home, he carefully walked up the stairs, carrying something—always trying to help despite how difficult it was for him.
Our last trip to Costco together, before Charlie accepted home hospice and began spending most of him time in meditation preparing for his next journey, Charlie stayed in the car. It was so strange for me. He wanted to go. He walked down the steps to the car. But when we arrived, he told me he would just wait in the car. I knew he couldn’t walk, and yet, he came with me.
With my list in hand, I first went to the customer service desk to return an item that we couldn’t use. They issued me a $6.00 credit card for the store. I was in such a hurry to get what we needed and not leave Charlie alone in the car for long that I dropped the card somewhere in the store. When I was checking out, I didn’t have it. I didn’t think about it. I just paid and left to get back to Charlie and get him home.
Once in the car and back with him, we took a slow, long way home. He loved to be out, to feel a part of the world, to escape for a while the hard truth that cancer and the drugs used to fight it were killing him.
But to be back home was also a joy. Instead of immediately unloading the car, I would walk with him up the stairs to help support him. Using the rail we had installed, he would pause at each step. Instead of complaining the steps were so difficult, he would look at the cacti and roses booming. He commented on their beauty, as if he had paused just to enjoy them—and I believe he did. We spend 10 minutes or so getting back in the house, getting Charlie settled, and then I would unload the car. He never apologized; never thanked me. It was just what had to be done. He knew it and I knew it. And we silently agreed it was my turn to take care of him.
Afterwards, he asked me to sit with him. At the time, I was feeling strong and wanted to work—put groceries away, stow away bulk supplies, finish the job. But he could only sit. And he asked me to sit with him—I’m sure it was because he wanted me to rest and be with him instead of doing those things he could not longer do. And so I did. And it was beautiful. I let the toilet paper and paper towels sit in the hallway while I sat with him and looked out at the mountains. He was teaching me to slow down. To enjoy the moment. To be mindful. To not be so focused on doing—but on BEING.
Later, when he was resting, I would slowly and quietly finish the job of putting Costco supplies away. But as I did so, I did it with a different mindset. It wasn’t one of rushing and finishing—it was a mindset of quiet clarity. I felt as if I were serving him, a man who deserved to be honored. And the experience was so profoundly different that it had been for me before.
This is just one of the many lessons he taught me throughout his illness—and I haven’t even gotten to the real story.
Day before yesterday I went to Costco for the first time since Charlie traveled beyond this life. I cried half the drive wishing he were sitting next to me. But half of my list was for a friend who needed things—and so I went. Alone.
I am still recovering from sciatica and breast surgery, so the experience was a challenge for me physically in addition to the sadness of being there alone. Like Charlie had done, I used the cart for support. I limped and pushed my way through the throngs of consumers, getting at times agitated at the people who lined up for free samples making it impossible for me to get through (anyone who shops at Costco knows this experience).
Finally, I made my way to the check out line. I presented my card, which is on Charlie’s account, and waited patiently to pay as I always have.
The clerk then alerted me that there was a hold on my account.
I was terrified for a brief moment thinking, “I cannot deal with this now!” The clerk asked me if I knew some reason for a hold on the account. I fought back tears. I didn’t have any idea. But I thought it might be that somehow they knew Charlie had passed and I had to change the account. I whispered to the clerk: “My husband passed away last week—this is his account that we share. Please, please don’t make me deal with this now.”
He called for a manager, who arrived in seconds. She looked at the account and said, “We have a hold on your account because someone found your gift card last month. They turned it in and we wanted to make sure it was returned to you.”
A six dollar gift card. That was the hold on the account.
I admit, I cried right then and there. Someone had found the card I had dropped the last time I was there—there was no amount printed on the card; there was no name. Anyone could have used that card. But no. Some kind, beautiful human being found it, picked it up, and turned it in. It was only worth $6.00.
The manager who came to fix my account hold brought the card. She touched my shoulder and said some kind words. As I was leaving, she stopped me again to ask if I was okay. I was obviously crying in gratitude to the person who turned in that card. It was the kind of thing Charlie would do.
My answer: “Yes, I’m okay. I’ve just been touched by human kindness. It is what my husband would have done.”