The Well Again Path, Part 3: Monster, Meet Medicine

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In 2008, when my cancer recurred the second time, I made a beeline for the home of a trusted friend. She happened to be giving a party, but I barged in to drop my bad news anyway. I thought I was whispering. I guess not. When I got to the word “Cancer,” the chatter around me went still. Suddenly people were staring. One guest spoke. I had just shaken her hand. Now she looked at that hand and shivered. “Thank god it’s not contagious,” she said.

She looked so horrified, I wanted to laugh at her. Bwa-ha-ha! Behold the evil cancer power at my fingertips!

But I knew this poor woman had just blurted what half the room was thinking. And I knew something else: she’d never had actual cancer. She was picturing imaginary cancer, and wondering what I’d done to deserve it.

Cancer scares us way down in our primitive selves. It cuts through our fancy modern emotions and takes us back to a time when we thought an eclipse was a dragon eating the sun. From that perspective, this thing, attacking us from within, feels like a punishment for something we did wrong—a judgment handed down by some god we offended. Otherwise, why? Nothing this awful could be random.

What did I do wrong? Despite all our education, that question won’t go away. And it’s not just us. We can plainly see our family and friends watching us with questions of their own. Why did the monster choose her—and does it want me too?

We never talk about this stuff, of course. We’re embarrassed to admit we could be so superstitious. But if we want to live on beyond cancer, we’d do well to stop judging our own fear and work with it instead.

Cancer comes at us two ways. It’s a medical diagnosis that also sets off our most ancient, hard-wired emotional and spiritual alarms. That’s the beast. To fight it, we have to cut it down to size. We have to separate the monster from the medicine.

You might be interested to try an exercise I do with my clients. Go get paper and crayons. (Why crayons? Because cancer feels like that monster under your bed when you were three.)

Now draw this monster, cancer. Give it a face.

Of all the movie villains I saw when I was little, the Banshee scared me the worst. It had a long cloak and a billowy hood, and when it turned toward you, you expected a horrible face underneath. But what you saw was worse than that. Under that hood was…NOTHING. Nothing but all the evil your imagination could supply.

Give cancer a face, and you’ve already cut it down a peg. Give it a face, and you can tell that face to get out of your house. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be afraid. That would be insane. But we shouldn’t despair, either. Cancer is not that strong. I can’t outrun a judgment. But against an illness, I’ve always got a chance.

That’s what I was thinking when I wrote the third step on the Well Again Path. Cancer is just an illness, not a judgment or a punishment.

Every time I feel like flying off into the mysteries of cancer—and you can tell from my writing that I make that trip a lot—I remind myself: Cancer’s just an illness. That punishment stuff is my ancient wiring, trying to handle something it never can. It’s a short circuit. I don’t have to listen anymore.

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—Anne Stockwell

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