Two days ago a woman with stage four oesophageal cancer wrote a heart-rending message to one of the cancer communities I participate in. In agony and believing she was close to death, she asked us if she should resort to morphine and ‘move myself on to the afterlife’ or if she should ‘keep trying’ against seemingly impossible odds. And, if so, how?
“I have a two year old son,” she concluded poignantly with seven words that carried all her anguish and grief.
Every mother among us felt our hearts break.
Her message was greeted with a flood of concern, support, compassion and camaraderie, which is why I participate in this particular group. It was also met with an overwhelming amount of advice about potentially helpful treatments and, almost invariably, entreaties to ‘keep fighting’ and not ‘give up’. Everyone is willing her to keep going, to try everything possible, to battle on and endure.
Part of me is in there with them, screaming from the margins of her young life to turn the next page of her story, to write the next chapter, to see the next birthday of her beloved son. I want her to win. To make it. To overcome.
And yet. Is there a finer, more freeing wisdom whistling through the winds of our collective compassion that may pull her from the sinking sands of despair? Does part of her need to hear that it’s ok to let go, to surrender rather than fight and to know such a choice bears the hallmark of courage not defeat? Does her soul need assurance that dying is not giving up, but giving herself over to That Which Is? That to die is not to abandon her beautiful boy, but to entrust him to That Which Continues and the legacy of love she will leave him? That death is not failure and can be chosen as surely, and as heroically, as we can choose to ‘fight’?
Since last I blogged David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Terry Wogan have all died of cancer in fairly quick succession. Each of them chose to keep their illness a secret from the public, each of their legacies is extraordinary and each of their deaths was reported as ‘having lost his brave battle with cancer’. This is the language we use, over and over. War zone. Battleground. And the ones who die lose.
This way of framing the cancer experience, this familiar yet insidious undermining of the many nuanced victories that colour their journey from diagnosis to death, seriously pisses me off. It does no justice to the likes of Bowie, who brought the same creative genius to his disease and dying as he had to living, making of it something awe-inspiring and remarkable, laying cancer out like a perfect canvas for his final work of art. That isn’t losing. That’s winning. That’s winning big.
Cancer is an illness not an enemy. And like all illnesses it is drawing our attention to what is out of kilter in our minds, hearts, bodies and spirits. As I said in my book, “If cancer is the enemy, we are either its victim or its attacker. There is a wall between us, but no door. No dialogue. No listening to what cancer has to teach us. No chance of reconciliation or peace.”
In part, I wrote my book to change this extremely limiting way of relating to cancer. It constructs a succeed-or-fail framework, narrowing the narrative into a thin corridor of choices between winning and losing, beating and being beaten, fighting and giving up. And it sets aflame a global gallery of canvases upon which millions of cancer patients have painted their exquisitely personal, painful and awe-inspiring works of art.
When a young mother reaches out to a group of people who might just recognise the razor sharp cut of her harrowing plight to ask if she should stay or go, how will we answer? How will we make it as ok for her to let go as it is for her to keep going? How will we carry her off the noisy battlefield and turn her attention inwards to the Silence that holds her answers? How will we help her win, whatever she chooses and however the tide turns?
Perhaps it begins with the admission that we have no adequate answers – and with the willingness to shed our own fear of finding ourselves in her position before we say anything at all. Perhaps it is better to ask what sorrows are lodged in her diseased gullet and make our ears safe vessels for her response. Perhaps we simply need to say, “Stop fighting and start listening…to your body’s wisdom, your heart’s longing and the still small voice within.”
Whatever she chooses – and whatever chooses for her – let us not say she won or lost the battle. Let us stand before her unique canvas and admire her artistry. Let us honour her opus. And let us all learn the art of winning even when we lose.