Cancer sends you immediately from the world of the not sick into the world of the sick. You do not pass Go, nor do you get $200. Contrary to the opinion of some it is not a “gift” to others. Rather, you enter a foreign place requiring a navigator to assist with getting to know the topography, the people and the culture.  Fortitude, intelligence and mindful awareness of your own vulnerability and the vulnerability of others are essential.  These will help you on your unwanted and unexpected journey.

To tell or not to tell, this becomes a crucial question. As soon as it is named people often separate themselves from you with a kindness meant to convey empathy but which unintentionally serves to differentiate them from the cancer “victim.” They are not in the land of the sick and offer assistance from their position of strength to yours of weakness. Thus the patient is isolated and has suddenly become, as per Susan Sontag, deviant. Paradoxically, the kindness metaphorically kills.

Murmurings of how brave, heroic and strong you are can be uplifting (or irritating). Bravery, however, usually involves a choice to act in the face of fear. Someone said, “A hero is someone who is too afraid to run away.” As far as strength goes, what does that even mean? No one raises a hand and says, “Pick me! I’ll take the cancer!” One doesn’t have a choice about how to proceed if trying to return to the land of the not sick. Heroism and strength aren’t really part of the action. It’s not a war. Rather, working with cancer necessitates a slogging persistence on the part of the patients and those who care, once the novelty of the diagnosis is over.

Disclosing that you have the big “C” can also bring great support, compassion, love, knowledge, wisdom and people with whom to walk side by side on the path. Allowing others to help you is an act of kindness. Opening and accepting what is happening (when you can) also provides the possibility to use the practice. One can be with whatever is coming and going whether it is fatigue or energy, nausea or appetite, pleasure or pain, irritability or contentment, sadness or joy. Mindfulness can help you to stay with what is happening now and prevent you from falling into a catastrophic future that has not arrived.

Cancer provides the in your face opportunity to live vividly, really from moment to moment. Resistance is futile anyway since the body is the boss. We have poison, the knife and fire to beat it into submission but these are primitive tools against a complex organism that has a way of voicing itself regardless of our cognitive intentions. You kind of have to go with the flow. Well, you don’t but then you just suffer more than you already are.

We forget that we are interdependent, that my “me-ness” and your “you-ness” are constructed and that we are all small parts of the same turbulent sea.  Mindfulness can help us navigate the rough waters and make more informed and less reactive decisions whether we are the patient, care giver or loved one. Serious illness can be an opening for you and others. It can provide wisdom and the cultivation of compassion, but this entails remembering that we are all in the boat together and that we don’t inadvertently try to push the sick out to lighten the load.



Patricia Rockman

Pat Rockman