Like most people I talk to, I am terrified of being diagnosed with cancer again. Every weird feeling, illness or overtired day makes me think that something is seriously wrong with me. My particular way of dealing with fear in general is to run and hide. This is not just a cancer thing….I get scared about money and don’t check my bank accounts. I get scared about confrontation and don’t talk to people. I get scared about my health and don’t see the cancer doctors for a year and a half. Don’t get me wrong, I take my meds, I eat right, and I keep visualizing myself as healthy and cancer free for the rest of my life. I also wake up in the middle of the night dripping with sweat, grabbing at my chest wanting to tear the skin off believing that there is something just below the surface that doesn’t belong there. I have horrible fantasies about what will happen, how I will handle it, what I would tell my kids, how I would look bald. It is sick, and I own that, but it is real and probably quite normal. This being a normal and understandable response to such a terrifying and life threatening event is not however an excuse for avoidance. Instead, facing these fears head on provides an opportunity to develop greater love and compassion for myself and the world at large and a deeper commitment to my own life.
In Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes: “The central question of a warrior’s training is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear but how we relate to the discomfort”. For a long time I actively choose to NOT relate to the fear around the “what if’s”. Attempting to ignore the deeper emotions behind “I don’t want to” allowed me to come up with excuse after excuse to let time slip by, to not return doctors phone calls, to be too busy and to blow off my own real concerns. Eventually, the better part of me won out….I want more from myself and for myself. I want to be living an honest life where I am not hiding from the things that make my skin crawl; one in which I am out there actively shaking a stick at whatever it is saying “Yeah? You think you got me? Well, I will show you!” And frankly, my kids already believed that I WAS that person. When I asked my son if he was scared about my cancer diagnosis, he said “nah. You are gonna kick its ass”. I want to be the superhero that my kids seem to think I am. Most of all, I want to be able to look at myself and know that I make every effort to fully appreciate, love and care for the person I am. Not confronting my fears was doing myself a great disservice not just because it potentially endangered my health, but because it was sending a message to my deepest self that whatever I was really experiencing physically and spiritually was not worth looking at.
I had valid reasons for wanting to avoid the doctor. The trauma of this diagnosis and its treatment was immense and I am sure that more than a few cancer survivors experience PTSD symptoms that get in the way of post-cancer care. However, self love is not just about feeding myself chocolate and buying a good bottle of wine to comfort myself. It is about making sure that I do not let anything get in the way of making good choices. It is about making sure that fear does not get in the way of my living a fully present and aware life. Pema does not say that a warrior avoids confrontation, a warrior engages in it. Confrontation is not just what happens with another person – it is actively looking at and dealing with what is battling within us.
So how do you learn to stay present in the process when the fear of “what if” squeezes your chest, your head begins to spin and all you can do is think about which way to run or the multitude of horrible things that are bound to happen? First, we must as the Buddhists say, awaken compassion for ourselves. We must treat our scared selves with the same love and caring that would give to our children or our dearest friend or lover. When someone says something that hurts us, or we get off the phone having heard bad news, instead of letting our minds start rattling around building a story about what just happened, we need to stop and acknowledge how it made us feel. When my kids were little I would name what was going on so that they would learn the language to connect with the feelings. “Ouch, that must have hurt”, “how scary that was”, “it is frustrating to not have a choice”. By giving their feelings an identity, I gave them the first steps in not letting those feelings get too overwhelming because they were unacknowledged. We must do this with ourselves when we are scared instead of assuming that since we are “grown-ups” we should be able to figure out how to handle the most overwhelming drama imaginable.
We need to clearly name the monster under the bed. By identifying what we are feeling, we gain the power and insight with which to deal with it. There is a practice called Insight Meditation that I have used over the years to conquer an often debilitating anxiety disorder. While the average persons’ view of meditation is that you sit there and try not to think about anything, using Insight Medication you become the observer of whatever appears in your mind. The intention is that you view your thoughts and emotions the same way Winnie the Pooh and Piglet watched the sticks they threw from the bridge float down the stream. As you observe your inner emotional river, you name each feeling or thought as it floats by. The trick is you don’t get to hold onto any of it – you just let it go on by. By naming what is up and not letting ourselves get caught up in the story around it we are allowing ourselves a greater depth of experience in the moment and grow stronger in our ability to be more present. My anxiety about seeing the doctor again was being hand fed my own fears and stories about what ifs. It wasn’t until I allowed myself the chance to name exactly what the feelings were behind the all encompassing “fear” that I was able to move forward and take the steps that led me to another clean bill of health.
By being present with our fears, we do not give them the opportunity to become bigger than us. When my kids were small, I owned a livestock farm on which there were several roosters. One of them was HUGE – it reached to my mid-thigh and had a really bad attitude. My son Eric was a tiny kid – way under height and weight for his age, and it was his job to feed the chickens. That rooster would chase Eric and stood at the gate challenging him to go past. It got to the point where Eric wouldn’t do his chores because he was scared so I sent him out with a baseball bat. I told him he had a job to do and he was not to run from that rooster, but if it bugged him, start swinging that bat! I don’t remember if the bat and the rooster ever made contact, but the lesson that I was not going to let him avoid the situation was clear. Our “bat” is our willingness to be in the moment, no matter how uncomfortable, and do the job that needs to be done with compassion for all that is required of us to do it. Denying our inner experience and turmoil is not the solution any more than avoiding the situation is. Learning what we are made of is as important to us now as adults as is it was when you were a kid terrified of a rooster.
But we also need to treat ourselves with kindness and compassion in this process. We are not at our strongest when we are dealing with trauma, and when something like cancer is trying to kill us we frequently respond with fear, anger and frustration instead of loving ourselves as we would our children or friends. I recently spoke with a woman who was only 2 weeks out of her mastectomy surgery. She spoke for an nearly an hour seemingly without taking a breath about how she didn’t understand what was happening, how she wanted to just get back to normal and how she couldn’t understand why she was such a mess. Uncharacteristic for these kinds of conversations in which I am normally very sympathetic, I finally said “Look. You are not being very kind to yourself. If your kids had a major event even remotely close to this, what would you be doing for them? What would you be saying to them? What expectations would you have of them? You might be a grownup, but you just had a body part chopped off and that is NOT something you just get over.” There was silence on the other end of the phone line and a very small voice said “oh”. She would not expect her kids to “get over it” or keep working or any of the stuff that she was believing that she should do. She needs a “bat” to equip herself for the task at hand of beating this disease. Her warrior training is that of learning to treat herself with gentleness and love in order to be present and make good rational, educated decisions. In the end by breathing into all that frightens her she will experience the deep physical and emotional healing that can come when she realizes that cancer is not bigger than she is.
We all have choices to make in how to view the things that we are not trained, equipped or prepared to deal with. Sometimes the choices we make about our responses are the only ones we get to make in the middle of the challenges we are facing. We can wallow in the grief, anger and confusion about it. We can be in denial about the seriousness of the event or illness, our feelings around what is happening or our level of fear and trauma. We can be angry at cancer, at ourselves and at everyone around us. We can try to ignore it and just get on with life. But learning to engage our fears, to use them as a window into the depths of our soul creates a deeper sense of compassion for oneself and ultimately for others as well. By continuing to engage in life fully, we grow richer in our ability to love and to heal ourselves and those around us.
A long time ago I had a dream in which a Native American warrior in full war attire walked to the edge of a precipice in full view of the invading masses. As the sun set before the day of battle, he drove a lance into the ground and tethered himself to it. This commitment to the battle, the physical statement of not turning away is what is required of all cancer patients and anyone else engaged in deep challenging times. There are days, weeks and months when we choose to bury our heads, when anger, sorrow, grief, illness and exhaustion get the best of us even years after our diagnosis. We do ourselves a great injustice when we let this disease take too much of our ability to live fully and honestly; when we don’t allow ourselves to live the superhero role the people around us see in us even when we can’t. Cancer, surprisingly, gives at least as much back to us as it takes if we open ourselves to accepting it’s teachings. Being a warrior does not always mean fighting a battle with weaponry; it is commitment to the process. Being a warrior is staying present in confronting the barriers to our own growth. It is a direct challenge to the intolerance with which we often view our deepest feelings. Being a warrior – indeed being AMAZON – is about fully appreciating and holding compassion for who we are even when we are not all we want to be. It does not mean that we are never scared, overwhelmed and fearful…rather that when we ARE these things, we are still walking the path, still present with the feelings and still saying YES to the work we need to do to be whole.