When we talk of cancer and its treatment, we speak the Language of War. There seems little way around it. We talk of the “fight” against cancer, the “battle” to win, treatment that will “destroy” the cancer cells. We use chemical warfare to eliminate the enemy and radiation to kill the invading troops, both of which involve much collateral damage to other parts of our bodies, not to mention the emotional toll.
If you’ve ever experienced these treatments, then you know what if feels like to have a battle raging inside your body. There is no point at which it feels good. It’s an experience to get through or endure, hoping to come away a survivor. And often both the cancer and the therapy feel like enemies in the way they leave us depleted and beaten.
I understand the motivation that leads us to live this as a life and death battle. I appreciate what’s required to stand up to an assault on our bodies. But I also understand the power of words to affect us. The rage that we direct toward the cancer cells doesn’t act like a laser focused on a specific target; it affects other cells as well. Its energy invades our being in ways that we don’t control. The effect of the cancer and the ammunition used to fight it can definiteIy be compounded by our words, thoughts and attitude.
I spent weeks after being diagnosed trying to get away from the language of war. I summoned up alternate images thinking a kinder replacement might provide a stronger support. I tried to see the toxic medications as Negotiators of Peace in confronting the cancer cells. I tried to envision them all at the table but had difficulty seeing past that image. I couldn’t see a reason that cancer would even show up to negotiate.
Then I thought of the Survivor Tree – the one that made it through the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on 9/11. I thought about how it was cared for and nurtured to allow for new growth and finally returned home. But I couldn’t get past the horrific destruction that had caused it to nearly die as well as the death of so many individuals. No, this wasn’t an image that could serve me in shifting my relationship with cancer and chemotherapy.
I was beginning to feel defeated in my attempts to move past the Language of War, and, as a result, feeling bad in my body. Increasingly I was experiencing a shift in my relationship with my physical self. I was mistrustful of its ability to be well again, triggered by a sense of betrayal in allowing me to think I was healthy and suddenly discovering that I wasn’t. I was on the path to distancing myself from my body and taking up a judgmental, self-righteous stance. And not feeling good about where I was headed.
In my meditation practice I decided to spend more time on Metta or lovingkindness. Since I was already experiencing this separation from my physical body, I felt it important to direct the practice of Metta toward my body. My focus included the cancer cells as well as the parts of me that were healthy. My meditation practice in general had become one that was done lying down, since sitting often required more energy than I had. So, with my hands folded across my abdomen, I would repeat, “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free from harm, may you live with ease.”
How much more sense it makes to cultivate a loving attitude rather than taking up arms and waging battle. It may seem a small point, and I’m sure there are those who prefer the image of vanquishing the enemy on the battlefield. For me, however, Metta seemed the perfect practice to strengthen and support the health and well being of my body.
The good news, now that the chemotherapy is over, is that the cancer is gone. And while I notice some impatience to move on, I appreciate that deeper levels of healing are happening. I continue to practice Metta and probably will for as long as I can.