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  • Writer's pictureMarisa Guerin

Can I Have a Nonviolent Relationship with Cancer?

October 26, 2021 -- Marisa Guerin, PhD

I have long been struck by the language of war and violence that is associated with cancer, but it hasn’t been a personal concern…. until now. Two months ago, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood plasma, and I now find myself sorting through my feelings about this reality. Does the language of war fit for me? Is it possible to have a nonviolent relationship with cancer? With one’s mortality?

You know the words I’m talking about: conquer, combat, kill, battle, fight, struggle, war, warriors, and such. These words come from the human experience of fierce and lethal combat with a deadly foe. They show up all the time in connection with cancer – almost a default setting, both for patients and for medical professionals. And why not? I understand that for many people, including dear friends and family members, coping with cancer involves leaning into the energy of battling it with everything they’ve got. I respect that this is right for them, and I am also grateful for the efforts of medical researchers to “conquer” cancer by curing, preventing, or eradicating it. That’s a worthy effort that can help many, especially younger people, to have more of a full life span.

However, the aversion and resistance in my own reaction to the idea of being a warrior cues me to recognize that the imagery of fighting and conflict is probably not my own way. The violence in the language makes me wince, as if I were at war with my own body.

What I would like to explore here is a way of thinking, feeling, and speaking about having cancer that might be more nonviolent. That is, I’m looking for a way to realistically confront cancer as a problem to be addressed, versus fostering an adversarial relationship with my cancer as an enemy.

In this reflection, I’ll explain what I’ve come to learn about how enemies are made; why cancer doesn’t fit that profile; and how I might approach my cancer treatment experience with a nonviolent attitude. And I will also acknowledge that I don’t know much about how this might go for me. I’m doing my best to process it in real time.

“Making” Enemies

I have been inspired by the vision of nonviolence since my youth in the era of Vietnam and Civil Rights. I register that it is anything but easy; nonviolence is a very challenging stance, inherently risky in a world full of violent actors. I’ve learned that the violence is not just in the external action – killing, maiming, injuring others – but also in the emotions that go with the action -- hostility, fear, vengeance and hate. I also know that nonviolence is not passivity; it can involve action that is defensive, protective, containing, or self-sacrificing. But what it doesn’t involve is the “making” of an enemy.

Recognizing a force that is opposed to my own interests – as cancer would be – is a cognitive process, but interpreting that opposing force, or person, as an enemy is an emotional and psychological process. An enemy by definition deserves my anger, contempt, and hate. When I “make” an enemy, I put into the feared Other a complex of motives and attitudes that actually come from my psyche, capacities of my person which I may be unable to bear as my own reality – like my potential for murderous rage. Putting those capacities for violence into someone or something else lets me judge them as evil and deserving of my hostility and aggression. I hunker down into battle-stance.

And of course, sometimes people actually are intending to harm us, and we must do what we can to protect ourselves, hopefully without reciprocating the violence. But whether we make those who oppose us into enemies or not is an interior process.

Is Cancer an Enemy?

Cancer is a disease that seriously threatens my well-being and that could be fatal if left unaddressed. This true threat – that a cancer or another incurable disease can and will lead to death – is what makes it a ready target for making into an “enemy.” The idea of being an enemy brings violent intention into the picture, makes the cancer into something that is trying to kill me, that bears me ill will – not just a colony of malignant cells, but a malignant opponent living in my body and putting me in its sights. It’s an easy stance to fall into – few things trigger more fear than a diagnosis of cancer.

Well, what if cancer were not an enemy?

The fact is, cancer is not a conscious entity that is trying to do me in. It isn’t true that cancer is intending my demise. Cancer has no mind or thoughts – it is a problematic physical change in my body. The mutated cells in my blood plasma have deviated from their original protective mission as part of my immune system. They are replicating uncontrolled, and in so doing are producing malign consequences, not benign or beneficial ones. These cancer cells are lost. They are no longer in alignment with the body’s plan and design for health. If they are left alone, their proliferation will result in my sickness and death. My own body was designed from the get-go with an amazing immune system that is primed to notice defective entities and to neutralize them or eliminate them. When this is happening in my body, there is no emotional intention at work. Just simple survival calculations, from eons of evolution.

After all, even though it looks to us humans like a hostile interaction, there is no violent intention in the natural world of predator and prey, in the evolutionary process of survival of the fittest. We read our own human feelings into what we see, but Mother Nature is a grand, complex dance of life and death that is woven together into an ancient, living planet. Even the core tenets of the Christian faith concern precisely this mystery – that the Divine is fully incarnate in the created world, and that death is transformed into new life. Everything belongs, even when we can’t see how or why.

So, no – there is no hatred, hostility, or intentional violence at work in nature, and that applies to cancer, too. Cancer is not my enemy.

Treating Cancer Without a Violent Spirit

With that in mind, can I find a less antagonistic way to face cancer? A cancer diagnosis is a grave problem, for sure, a scary reality evoking a wide range of feelings that I must manage. But, if at all possible, it would be better for me – for a peaceful day, an appreciative life – if I could avoid harboring negative emotions like anger, hatred, contempt, anxiety or even disrespect towards this disease. The alternatives are not fatalism or passivity. I know that awareness and action are required: at a minimum, an awareness of my body’s disease situation, and a willingness to proactively support the processes that lead to cancer suppression and restoration of health.

Well, sure. That’s reasonable. But – not easy. My natural feelings have other ideas, as I attempt to practice awareness and attention. The red flags and ringing alarms in my emotions are shouting “Intruder! Intruder!” The fear that wants to make cancer an enemy shows up uninvited, and there is a part of me that would welcome a “magic bullet.” But the panic reaction doesn’t help anything; it just keeps toxic energy flowing around inside. My wiser self knows that to protect my health and my life, I must turn to medical science to control or eliminate these cancer cells, with enough patience and discipline to tolerate the side effects.

There is no question that treating a cancer unleashes intense life-death biochemical conflict within the body, as the defective cells are found and eliminated. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy are all fairly harsh forms of killing or removing cancer cells, and they often damage other heathy cells as collateral damage. The body is shocked and stressed and traumatized by many of these treatments. I personally am benefiting from newer approaches like immunotherapies that are less punishing, but the treatment regimen I’m on is still a major intervention in the life of the body. For incurable cancers like my own, a life-time rhythm of treatment-remission-relapse-treatment cycles has to be expected and embraced. If I am lucky, the right treatments might yield a treasured time of regained health, even though it will be temporary in the big picture.

So, while I don’t think there’s any point to taking cancer on as if it were a “war,” the hard work of suppressing or eliminating the cancer cells is worth real effort if it is also a process of restoring health. In this strenuous and challenging dynamic, I personally don’t want to think of myself as a warrior, or as someone in a battle. That makes “me” – my conscious mind – an enemy commander against my own body. It makes inevitable the sense of a split, a taking of sides, a good side and an evil side.

But I am all of me – the things in me that work and the ones that don’t. While incurable cancer is truly a serious disease, it is not true that I am being personally hunted down. There are parts of me, like the mutated myeloma cells, that don’t contribute to the common good anymore, so they have to be found and removed. I have no problem with that approach. It is the use of scientific power, but without animosity or anger – an active but nonviolent response to the threat to my life.

I don’t hate the myeloma cells. I do fervently hope to banish this cancer for a good long time, but I don’t want to live from a stance of being a violent adversary to my own self or to others. I want to walk this cancer journey in peace with myself as a whole person, who appreciates the gift of a body, even its flaws and weakness and off-course parts. This desire is very important to me, a core of my spirituality and my view of God, a point of continuous repentance and conversion in my way of living with other people and my world. I don’t have to do it by myself. I trust that I will be graced with what I need by the loving mystery that holds us all in being.

I Don’t Know How My Thinking Will Evolve

Despite enormous strides in treatment, my cancer is not known to be curable. As far as we know, the myeloma will continue to mutate, and it will slowly and eventually arrive at a type for which there is no effective treatment. Someday, (if I’m lucky, that “someday” will be years hence) I will be faced with a cancer that will cause my death, unless I die of something else first.

The period of my life when I had at least the illusion that health processes were effortlessly in charge has ended. I am now in the period of my life when health processes must work very hard just to slow down and keep at bay the disordered, life-ending processes that have emerged from my own body. For a can-do, optimistic person like me, this is a new and different frame of reference for living. Of course, if I think it about for two seconds, I realize that this is not news to lots of other people. It is broadly shared by all of us who are getting to be older, experiencing our diminishing physical capacities, and by all of us who live with chronic and serious health conditions. I and we will only survive as long as medical science and prudent lifestyle choices can continue to support our health.

What this means to me is that the nonviolent attitude with which I would like to live with my cancer must also become the nonviolent attitude with which to befriend the reality of my eventual death. I am guessing that the gift of serenity in the face of mortality might be rare. My father had it. I hope I will, too.

Yes, I’ll Do My Best to Stay Peaceful

In the meantime, I will stay the course here, doing my best to act diligently in cooperation with the treatment process. Instead of standing at the gates of my body-castle with lances bristling, I imagine myself setting up a safe, comfortable healing room within my body-castle for the biochemical process where the myeloma is being found and dismantled, the “m-spikes” are drawn down, the “light chains” disappearing (that’s multiple myeloma lingo).

Instead of a stance of cold and armored rejection of anything to do with cancer, I hope to be able to maintain a posture of support, containment and protection for my body as it metabolizes the chemo drugs and suppresses the cancer. I will do my best to encourage my body, cooperate with it, and I will wait as it works on my behalf. Not a warrior, but a faithful companion to my compromised body.

There is and there will be a lot going on with me, but I do hope my cancer journey can be navigated from a peaceful spirit. These are my thought processes at a very early stage and I can’t say what I will feel or think later. I hope I can retain a sense of engagement, awareness, openness, gratitude, and patience, without being taken over too often with the unavoidable feelings of fear, grief, or anger. I hope and expect it will be long journey (and I may completely lose track of these reflections if I achieve a multi-year period of remission).

I think the way through is one day at a time, with as much presence and gratitude as I am graced to have.

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