The Metaphor of "Fighting" Cancer

This is a repost of something I wrote last year and it is still so much in my mind and heart.

I have started 5 new posts in the past few weeks but somehow haven't been ready to finish any of them. And then today a dear friend sent me Having Cancer is Not a Fight or a Battle written by Kate Granger for the Guardian. The use of fighting language for people with cancer has long been a pet peeve of mine so here I go – hopefully not too much of a rant.

He "lost his battle to cancer". She "put up a valiant fight". We know these words. But why do we use this language? Is it useful? I am sure it's not. I told my friends that these words best not appear in my obituary or I would come back to haunt them.

There is no doubt that living with cancer – or with any acute, chronic or life-threatening illness – asks a lot of us. We want to be able to dig down and find the courage to face some unbelievably sad, painful or simply awful circumstances. We want to push our feelings aside so we can do what needs to be done and keep going. We want to keep the people around us from being discouraged, weepy or anxious (even when we are). Unfortunately, the reality of our circumstances do not truly lend themselves to the mantras of "fight" or "be positive".

We live in a world that seems to divide life between good and evil, right and wrong, friend and enemy. But this is a false dichotomy that just helps us feel better about the side we think we are on. We all too often forget that the other "side" is just a mirror of our own shortcomings, biases, etc. So, too, with unwanted illness: It is not an either/or proposition, but a nuanced and complex journey.

It cannot be useful for us to reject a part of ourselves – whether our own cancer cells or our own feelings. I am convinced that the true challenge is to embrace all of our experience. We need to accept the reality of our illness and to be open to what that means – even if it suggests death is near. We also need to accept that we can thrive now: We can take active steps for our physical, mental and emotional health. No outcome on a date certain can be guaranteed – no matter what anyone says.

Our task is to embrace all that is here – wanting it to be different while recognizing what is present now. The feelings that arise (fear, anxiety, sadness) and the ones we may need to cultivate at the same time (gratitude, love, safety).

I know the size of this task first-hand. And perhaps, because I am an optimist by nature, what I have to say may not be of use to you. But even as I want to make lemonade from lemons, I have struggled not get lost in a pity party, feelings of despair, and such.

Breathe2Change is all about the how of helping you find your path to be present with what is now – even the unwanted stuff – and open to gratitude and possibility and fullness in this moment. And as I support you in your journey of discovery I keep myself connected to the vibrant power of shared connection and the power of the present.

Hope, Fear, & Possibility


I have been wanting to write this ever since I wrote an earlier post on The Metaphor of "Fighting" Cancer. I suspect my reluctance comes from anticipating some pretty negative comments, but here are my thoughts. I would love to hear yours.

Hope: To want something to happen or be true and think that it could happen or be true; to desire with expectation of obtainment; to cherish a desire with anticipation
(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

When I hear people (especially those with chronic and life-threatening illness) use the word "hope", I frequently hear unspoken fear. What is hope truly? It is wanting things to be different from how they are now. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this: change is always happening. And when we find ourselves in a challenging or difficult situation, it is natural to want relief or improvement.

But at the same time, when we spend our psychic energy "hoping", we distract ourselves from the present and miss the richness that is already here now. And this takes not only mental and sometimes physical energy but it often brings with it a kind of denial. Can we have hope and truly see and accept things as they are now? I am not sure.

When I faced the death of my husband and then the possibility of my own death many years ago, I changed my framework for thinking about this. It became important for me to acknowledge and embrace the present and all that it contained – including the physical and psychological pain as well as the prognosis that the doctors offered. At the same time, I recognized that these were just numbers and statistics and that anything was possible. And it was this combination of welcoming what is here now and holding space for the entire range of possibility that has served me well.

I make space for both the known and the vast range of unknown. For me that known included the nausea, fatigue, and pain as well as the deep intimacy with family and friends, allowing myself to be dependent and accept an abundance of assistance. For me that unknown included both the possibility of death as well as the ability to survive and thrive. Hope has not been in my vocabulary. I refuse to attach my sense of well-being to something that is not here now and simply not knowable.

I understand this runs counter to so much of contemporary culture, especially in the cancer survivor world. I welcome your thoughts.

Dancing with Life (and Death)

This post was written in November, 2013 when a beloved friend was gravely ill.

In the past few weeks I have been yet again reminded of the precariousness of this business of living.

I took this picture recently on the beach in Florida while I was visiting a dear friend who is in hospice care. Each morning his partner and I would rise early and walk along the ocean.

The image reminds me of essential truths of nature: the sun illuminates the sky and water even on a stormy day; the turbulence of the water changes the terrain of the sand beneath; nothing stays the same.

Each morning in my yoga practice I create space and time:

  • To be present and tuned into life and nature right on my mat
  • To notice what illuminates me from within and without in that moment
  • To see the turbulence in living and to welcome both the disturbance and the inevitability of change
  • To remember to step lightly and breathe and move with these rhythms that are surely beyond my control

This week marks 12 years since my stem cell transplant. I have moved from living with the near certainty that death was around the corner to the simple knowledge that death is yet to come and may well arrive when least expected.

As I recall the churning ocean and see the diminishing light as we move towards winter, I feel the inexorable pattern of the ebb and flow of all existence – whether a wave or a leaf or a life. Each single piece is a precious part of something vast coming and going.

Living with Uncertainty

For a good portion of my life, I blithely went along thinking I could plan my day, my week, my next summer vacation, with certainty. And in the course of one hour, that assumption was blown away when my husband was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

At some level, we all know that substantive disruptions in our lives are possible in every moment, but I was certainly unprepared for mine. During the 8 months my husband was alive after that diagnosis, my planning horizon and my certainty about what the next moment might bring got really short. Sometimes I could plan the next hour; sometimes not. It felt like a wild and slightly crazy dance where I could rarely get my balance.

Barely three years later I faced my own life-threatening illness, and the crazy unbalanced dance began again. My life today is more stable than when I was diagnosed and going through treatment, but I still find myself wanting to recapture that old feeling – that my life can be orderly and predictable.

I have spent a good portion of the past 16 years learning to do the dance of uncertainty with light feet and with a regular warning to myself – sometimes successful, sometimes not – that the dance floor could tilt at any moment. I have found the techniques of mind-body medicine and yoga incredibly useful at reminding me to embrace what is here now, rather than wanting something else for tomorrow. Anything that connects me with my breath usually helps. Still, I notice how easy it is for me to forget and to assume that my life is stable and change is somewhere in the future.

In the past few weeks I have been reminded a number of times that change is more the norm than I would like to think. Why is this lesson so hard to learn? I feel the seduction of wanting stability, of deluding myself during times when my health seems predictable. I would not have chosen the circumstances of my husband's illness nor my own. But I often think that these challenges have been – and continue to be – my greatest teacher.

What I have is now.


This breath.

This moment.