When I was first diagnosed with cancer, February 2020, I wrote an essay called Choosing Life where I spoke about the ambivalence I often felt about life and a favorite cartoon on a postcard that explained it all: it showed a man leaning over a counter, returning a package saying, “No, life isn’t what I wanted, haven’t you got anything else?” In spite of my constant heavy heartedness, I managed reasonably well throughout life. Everything changed when I was diagnosed with angioimmunoblastic T Cell Lymphoma. This sudden turn of life events put me face to face with how much I let resistance and self-effacement limit possibilities for success and happiness. Cancer was an opportunity to see my life end, but my immediate reaction was that I wanted it all to change. I automatically sought treatment in spite of my usual mantra of how I hated life. There was never a thought otherwise — I chose life.
Being in treatment was a nurturing experience. I put my life in the hands of skilled doctors and nurses and all I had to do was to get better: being taken care of felt wonderful and I achieved something important — I was in remission — and winning felt victorious, but soon after, when it was time to return to being productive in life, I was lost. I wasn’t returning to a job, the pandemic swept through the world and it was unsafe to do just about anything that involved human contact and to top it off, it chased what local friends I had left to the suburbs. I found myself back to being a teen — I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life and that old feeling returned: “No, life is not what I wanted.” Like a kid not wanting to do homework I just didn’t want to work at creating a new lifestyle. Resistance was winning, and though I put rewarding outlets in place — volunteer work and writing — I still felt like there was a lot lacking. It felt like I let myself down. The dire need to want to make life count became diluted with resistance and exhaustion, physically, mentally and emotionally. I vacillated between determination and procrastination, “I’ll think about it tomorrow” Thank you Scarlett O’Hara.
I assumed that resistance was slowly taking over but I soon realized that some of it was that I was physically exhausted and eventually I saw lymph nodes appear again. Remission is over! Back to MSK, Pet scans, biopsies, and more.
I felt guilty thinking that I wanted life to be over. On some universal spiritual level I thought cancer came back to give me yet another chance at making life count. Is this a reward or a punishment? But it’s also possible that it never went away. My oncologist said it just shrank to unmeasurable levels so it only looked like it was gone. I like his explanation because it gets me “off the hook” though on some level, there is a feeling that I don’t like to acknowledge — it did feel like a punishment. Deeper down though, there is also the feeling that this is another chance to make my life count. I could look at this with guilt and failure, feeling defeated because resistance won, or I could stop judging and look at my cancer recurrence as another experience to learn and grow from.
The feeling of being tired of living is just that – a feeling that needs to be paid attention to, not something to act on. Buddhists would say something like, acknowledge it then let it pass. For me, feelings of sadness and anger take over: I was recently taking my walk in the salt marsh and the overall feeling I had at the time was anger. I hate having to fight cancer for the rest of my life. As this thought came to me, I looked up at the trees and saw little buds and realized that my anger doesn’t have movement and growth. It makes me feel agitated and stuck while everything around me is going through changes. Eventually the feeling evaporated without my even noticing it. I felt it, acknowledged it and moved on. Later that night I realized with relief that I was feeling peaceful again. I know that feeling will arise again and instead of the self-hate I would usually feel, I will try to remember that at this moment I am just not up to the challenge. It is temporary, not a state of mind. Unpleasant feelings won’t kill me, I had them my whole life but never did they define me. I am, and we all are, a mix of yin and yang, the darkness cannot be ignored but instead it is balanced by light and this in itself is a lesson resulting from my cancer recurrence. I was jubilant when I reached remission and thought that this victorious feeling would be permanent but it wasn’t. Life will always have its’ ups and downs and resistance will not go away, but I am here like the chariot in the Tarot cards with black and white sphinxes in front of me, representing the balance of opposing forces.