Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I've completely healed from my cancer surgery, feel vigorous and happy, and have a positive prognosis (only one in four women at my age and with my kind of breast cancer and gene expression will have a recurrence within ten years).

Yet when I visited my son on Saturday, he worried that the three-hour drive might be too much for me, and a friend of his took great pains to tell me how great I looked and how happy he was to see me doing so well (I could almost hear the unstated "...for someone who has cancer").

Later, I shared my perspective with my son that I had cancer. Now I'm cancer-free, focused -- like most other people -- on staying healthy and preventing a recurrence. I wonder, though, if some potential clients will hesitate to hire me. I've been quite open about my diagnosis and surgery; will they see me differently, as "a cancer survivor"? Will they feel uncomfortable with me? One woman wrote this about her work experience:
"I avoided telling many coworkers of my diagnosis, fearing being treated as if I had one foot in eternity, and the other on a roller skate... I could see it in the eyes of those who weren't well-informed. The stigma was virtually painted on me for a while."
Stephan suggested several aspects of stigma associated with cancer, one more self-imposed ("No one will love me because I have no breasts"), the others more social: disapproving/blaming ("She should have had regular mammograms"), or setting us apart as "sick"/avoiding us because they don't know how to talk about cancer and feel awkward asking questions.

I suspect that avoiding or pitying or blaming cancer survivors has a deep psychological root in fear of the ultimate reality: we're all going to die, and nobody likes to be reminded of it. As Irvin Yalom wrote in Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, "Self-awareness is a supreme gift, a treasure as precious as life. But it comes with a costly price... Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and, inevitably, diminish and die." All humans carry the stigma of the wound of mortality.

My bout with cancer was a huge awakening, a deeply moving experience I don't regret in any way. Instead, I'm grateful for the sometimes blinding clarity, boundless gratitude, and deep presence I live in much of the time. Yet I sometimes obsess on the relentlessness of death. So I'm adapting the Buddhist practice of death meditation, meant to remind us to live each moment fully because life is precious and short, and  -- when we are dying -- to remove our fear so we have a good rebirth.  
"Old masters advise, 'Stick the word death on your forehead and keep it there.'" Philip Kapleau, The Zen of Living & Dying.
My own death meditation is immersion in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry about the inevitable. I started, at Yalom's suggestion in Staring at the Sun, with Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich, who said, on his deathbed, "It can't be. It's impossible! But here it is. How is this? How is one to understand it?"

A favorite nonfiction piece, from The Death Issue of the literary journal Conjunctions, is Sallie Tisdale's  "The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies:"   
"The first time one tastes certain complex flavors they are unpleasant, even offensive. But in time it is that very flavor, its complexity--the bitterness or acidity mingling with other layers--that brings you back... This is a little bit of what I feel toward flies... Flies have long been considered the shills and familiars of gods, witches, and demons. They are so unutterably strange, all swarming and speed and single-mindedness, and they cannot be avoided... (We) shred our world like giant pigs rutting after truffles. We poison our nest and each other and ourselves. We eat everything, simply everything, but we turn away from flies."
Death images in poetry range from Khalil Gibran's For life and death are one, even as the river and sea are one, to Baudelaire's Death, who carries a bouquet, handkerchief, gloves, and moves with all the careless and high-stepping grace of a courtesan. For Emily Dickinson, Death was a traveling companion: Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me / The carriage held but just ourselves / And immortality.

I leave this meditation for today with Anne Sexton's poem "Rowing," from The Awful Rowing Toward God:
...I am rowing, I am rowing
though the oarlocks stick and are rusty 
and the sea blinks and rolls
like a worried eyeball,
but I am rowing, I am rowing,
though the wind pushes me back
and I know that that island will not be perfect,
it will have the flaws of life...
I, too am rowing; I am rowing.

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