January 29, 2017 Hey my people,
“Reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it.”
That quote, spoken by the great philosopher Lily Tomlin, is a founding principle of my work with Well Again. Let me explain.
We cancer people don’t take strength from our community. This has bothered me from the start. I could never understand why, when there are so many of us, we don’t look to each other for friendship, understanding, and the occasional dance party.
What are we? Chopped liver?
Actually, yeah. Kind of. Our medical caregivers group us by the organ or system they dissected: we’re breast or prostate or colon or whatever. We never see each other out in the world, living our lives. We never meet each other as people. This is a shame. If I’m going to be in a club, I want to be known for something other than my sutures.
For many of us, our medical treatment, bad as it is, is the least upsetting thing we go through. We don’t say this, but it feels like cancer attacks more than our bodies. This illness comes at us at a soul level. It undermines our sense of ourselves in the world. It wrecks our reality. Not just once, but again and again.
This is the kinship we don’t talk about. I don’t care how many breakthroughs science has made; the word cancer still hits us like a baseball bat. Over and over, every scan or procedure or visit, we brace ourselves for The News. Even if it’s good news, we’re exhausted afterward. (After 15 years of this, I refuse to go home from a scan without stopping for a chocolate shake. There’s gotta be some justice.)
When people talk about the battle with cancer, I think they mean the fortitude to face life without certainty. It takes courage to show up for a specific treatment, but that’s secondary. What comes first, always, is the courage to face those moments when cancer upends everything we thought was real.
To our credit, we always get past the blow and get moving again. It takes a minute, but we do it—over and over, as long as it takes, right up to this moment, right now.
The tools that get us through are not the ones we learned in school. Now’s our chance to ask ourselves: What do we most love doing? What really gives us a charge? Misbehavior is usually involved.
How we feel about the cancer voyage, how we choose to see it, can help our chances of surviving. Doctors don’t know exactly how our state of mind improves our ability to heal. But they tell me that it does.
Thinking for ourselves, doing what we love, telling the truth, cherishing our memories, making new ones—these are the tools that matter. The more we practice them, the more we know what makes us Well Again. It’s not whether we make it to remission and stay there. It’s whether we use cancer as a motivator to help us live our most authentic lives in every moment we’re given.
In life beyond cancer, Well Again is something we do.
Which brings me back to Lily Tomlin. In her brilliant stage show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Lily portrays Trudy the Bag Lady, who tells us going crazy was the best thing that ever happened to her.
“I refuse to be intimidated by reality anymore,” says Trudy. “After all, what is reality anyway? Nothin’ but a collective hunch.”
Thanks to Lily, I know that while it’s bashing us around, cancer shows us that reality is not what we think. Sometimes it’s actually better. Even when The News is bad, reality keeps right on moving. We get the chance to embrace the ride, in whatever way is most meaningful for us.
When I see a beautiful woman with a pink ribbon, I think, She’s rising above cancer. I get that, but I choose to go a different way. I figure if cancer is going to mess with me, I want to look hard to kill. I show up at the cancer center in a black leather jacket with shades on top.
These tactics, the leather jacket and the pink ribbon, are equally honorable. They both show the resourcefulness and creativity of this community. We are awesome. That’s reality.
I can be on my way out of the cancer center, feeling like a wilted salad, and if the right song comes on my radio, I start singing. I can’t help myself. The reality of five minutes ago gives way, and the reality of five minutes from now is a whole new story waiting to happen.
Which reality is real? I vote for the one with the backbeat. Who’s with me?
I’d love to hear your stories about living on beyond cancer. Please email me here, or at email@example.com.
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