Sustaining the Gift of Cancer

August 2, 2013

Eve Ensler, in her piece The Gift of Cancer, writes:

“Cancer stopped me
From running
Trying to prove my worth
It stopped me
From apologizing for the truth

. . .

It forced me to take in love
And be cared for, which made me human
It took away the privilege of the well
And made me a patient
It taught me a new kind of pain
And now I see even more clearly the sick, the poor, the raped and the oppressed and I know we are family
And the majority
And that what divides us is illusion
Created by our refusal to feel

. . .

And I know I almost died and that it was only a couple of inches
And a few months that kept me here
And I now live with death as my companion
And sometimes she scares me and sometimes
she comforts me
But mainly she inspires me to be braver
And I no longer have any desire to be invincible
Because it isn’t possible
Or accurate
I am vulnerable and porous
And outraged and crazy-happy and alive
And I know what care is
And what it isn’t
. . .
And I know that chemo can be a metaphor
As well as a physical treatment
And that the poison is not meant for me
But the cancer
The perpetrators
The rapists
. . .
And I know that no one will ever again
Convince me I am bad
Nor will I tolerate being undermined
And undone
. . .

Cancer made it clear
That time is short

And we must decide
If we devote ourselves to wrestling power inside the crumbling walls of patriarchy
If we are ready and brave enough to build the new world

And after searching for so many years to figure out what we are doing here
I finally get that we are being alive
And there must be time to linger
And time to enjoy
And time to remember
And time for nothing
And everything is precious
The Indian sari curtains glittering in late summer sun
The man petting his ugly dog in the park
The morning fog
The coconut popsicle

And I know that avoiding suffering is impossible

. . .

Dying is the only way of being born

My cancer is blessedly gone now
My hair is growing back
I have a scar
A warrior track that runs down
My 57-year-old body
Each time I look at it I am reminded that I was opened up in order to remove the darkness
I was laid bare in order to be free of the pain
I surrendered in order to find my power”

Living bravely.  Unafraid to feel all the feelings that remind me I am alive.  I get to breathe today.  Fighting for truth and justice.  And loving the people in my life fiercely, with all of my heart.  Even when it’s hard, even when we argue, even when it’s so overwhelmingly good I think I might explode.

This is the gift cancer gives us.  And in the early days after diagnosis, it’s easy to live in this unabashedly fearless way. But as I near the two year mark of life in The Cancer Games, it gets increasingly difficult to maintain this blessing of courage.

It’s exhausting.  For everyone.  Generally, we’re not accustomed to hearing or speaking the truth loudly.  Or opening our hearts to the full spectrum of pain and joy, allowing the extremes of human emotions to thrive within our tiny bodies.  We’re taught, especially as women, to be polite and sweet at all costs.

But I have no desire to live a polite life.  As Kerouac wrote: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

I want to live as bravely, fiercely, passionately as humanly possible.

I think this has been a hard shift for some people in my life to accept.  Before cancer, and before the things-that-were-harder-than-cancer, I was frequently seen as a push-over. Sweet.  I would do anything to avoid a conflict, including taking years of abuse without a word to anyone about how difficult my daily life had become.  But keeping my human experience caged like that caused a near severe emotional breakdown and put me in a position to lose a lot of people/things that were dear to me. And many healthcare professionals I have seen believe that bottling the hurt was a huge factor in allowing 3 sizable tumors to grow and thrive directly over my heart.

I don’t want to live like that ever again.  Even if living more bravely, more honestly, more passionately is less than easy. Exhausting.  Facing the path of conflict to achieve a greater peace.

‘And I know that no one will ever again
Convince me I am bad
Nor will I tolerate being undermined
And undone’

I want to fight for what I believe in.  To strive for truth, for stronger relationships, for forgiveness, for compassion.  To endeavor to be my whole messy, vibrant, volatile, zealous, ardent best self.

In the two weeks between my cancer diagnosis and my mastectomy, I began the following list:


sing at the grand ole opry

have a script picked up by pixar

learn to walk on stilts

adopt a child

parasail & hang glide

learn to speak french

spend more time in Europe (particularly France & Switzerland)

have the avetts write music for one of my shows

slackline over some canyons

hike the AT & the PCT

have a play produced at SCT

have billy, goat, gruff published

see the Anne Frank house

take a bike trip through latin america (AJ… I’mma hold you to this one)

witness all the butterflies on the trees once they’ve migrated to mexico

stand at 4 corners

see the sistine chapel

play ophelia

take an extensive sea-faring journey on a sailboat (oh… learn to sail… GH, you’re in charge of this one)

live in hawaii and do yoga on the beach every morning

This list is not complete. (Nor is it in any particular order. Although, if I was eligible for Make a Wish, the Grand Ole Opry is the wish I would make.)  But as I face a series of scans and tests over the next two weeks to try and determine if my cancer is really gone or still alive in me somewhere, this list reminds me that I need to continue to live bravely.  Even if the cancer’s dead.  I have dreams to chase.  I have people to love through the madness.  I have life life life.

End cancer chapter 24.


One Response to “Sustaining the Gift of Cancer”

  1. breewaters Says:

    Thank you so much for this beautiful, poignant writing. As a two-year breast cancer survivor (7/20/2011-13) you mirror many of my thoughts and feelings. God bless you in your spiritual growth and survival.

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