Behind Enemy Lines
by Mike Verano
I have to confess that three years into my thymic cancer survivorship, I still have problems with the “war on cancer” mentality. I fully appreciate that the diagnosis of cancer brings on a reflexive fight-for-your-life response. However, I find it hard to reconcile the need for peace of mind, so essential to a healthy recovery, with a battle against what author Siddhartha Mukherjee refers to as “the emperor of all maladies.”
The other confession I have is that my resistance to the idea of going to war with cancer is because I’m a peace-loving guy, a pacifist, yes, even a wimp. It’s always seemed to me that fighting an enemy that was continually in hiding, could strike at a moment’s notice, and never fought fairly is a no-win situation. Additionally, wars require enemies, and enemies require hatred. If the enemy is literally within, you run the risk of being hit with friendly fire. It has never made sense to me to walk around with the self-inflicted wound of anger and the ever-present shadow of hatred while trying to recover from a major illness.
I understand the medical profession’s need to be aggressive in its approach to certain cancers. I understand the “take no prisoners” mentality that seeks to instill hope in both the person with cancer and his or her loved ones. I also understand that the battlefield is my body, which not only harbors an alien invader but also is home to psychological and emotional states that are too often the casualties of the not-so-friendly fire of cancer treatment. I know that in my case, I often felt more like a hostage to the medications, procedures, and tests than a warrior whose heroics would surely garner a Purple Heart. There were times when my panic-filled heart wanted to go AWOL and hide out in the neutral territory of denial.
As a pacifist, I decided I would enter into an emotional peace treaty with my illness.
During a recent meeting of a cancer support group I lead, I realized that I was not the only one whose courage often waxed and waned. One of the members, talking about her fears, insecurities, and weaknesses, said, “I get tired of people telling me I’m so strong for facing this. I don’t want to be strong all the time, because sometimes I feel just the opposite.” Talk about having the guts to be honest; give that woman a medal of honor.
As a pacifist, I decided I would enter into an emotional peace treaty with my illness. While I surrendered my body over to surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, my mind sought comfort through the formal practice of meditation, yoga, Qigong, and other complementary therapies. I found strong allies in family members, friends, and even strangers. This helped to protect the borders of my sanity and conserve my energy for the unpredictable challenges that lie in wait.
Like most cancer survivors, I live with the awareness that my cancer could invade again, and I could be called up for active duty. I have already decided to join the ranks of one of the greatest fighters of all time, Mohammed Ali, and declare myself a conscientious objector. Though my body may enter into battle with cancer, I plan to stand my ground as a pacifist in mind and spirit and a firm believer in the motto “Do no harm,” particularly if the harm is heading my way. My previous experience assures me that I will have a ready and willing army of supporters to help me soldier on through the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual landmines ahead. Of course, this army will be carrying flowers, burning incense, and chanting “Give peace a chance.” That’s why I love them so much.
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Mike Verano is an author, psychotherapist, and thymic cancer survivor living in Lanexa, VA. He blogs about being a pacifist in the war on cancer at cancerpacifist.blogspot.com.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2013.