How Should We Face Cancer?

Josh Friedman, screenwriter and producer of TERMINATOR and soon, AVATAR 4, wrote recently in TIME that after John McCain’s brain cancer was made public, we “…watched a lot of well-meaning people tell a brave man to be brave.” *

When Friedman was diagnosed with kidney cancer a few years ago brave is not how he felt, nor how he acted:
“Before my surgery I spent most of my time crying. Well, crying and pulling myself together, rocking my son to sleep, crying more and then taking Ativan so my wife could rock me to sleep.”

He’s an honest “coward,” brave enough to tell the truth.
He says, “… courageousness is a standard that no sick person should feel like they have to meet.”

Why and how did this kind of heroism become the standard for sick people, especially those with cancer? I think it came about for two reasons – first, we like to hear inspiring stories about battling cancer and winning because if someone else can do that, it means we could too. Book after book and supermarket magazines one after another feature these encouraging, hope-bearing stories of winners in the battle with cancer. There is a strong market for these stories and it has become part of the cultural narrative about cancer and good and evil – the good person winning a battle with the devil of a disease.

And then, the alternative health movement has brought forward knowledge about the role we each play in our own illness and healing. Surprising and wonderful recoveries from advanced cancers have been documented. They are real. Kelly Turner’s carefully researched 2015 book, RADICAL REMISSION, discusses the nine key factors she found in these healings. (See the WINN post for July 6, 2017, “Three Healings and One Cello”.)

But there is no guarantee that everyone can have that kind of recovery. A few years ago a dear friend died of breast cancer although she’d researched and followed the available holistic guidelines. She had done everything she knew about to stay alive. She was told that she had to have a positive attitude in order to heal herself and although she did her very best to be optimistic and thoroughly upbeat as she dealt with cancer, her disease continued to advance. She felt as though she had failed. Some well-meaning people advised her to ask herself, “What did I do to cause my cancer?” Her suffering was increased. She had to struggle with the sense that she had caused her own illness and then been unable to cure it.

We have discovered that emotions do play a role in developing cancer and in recovering from it, but we do not know enough yet about how to work with the many levels of physical and subtle energies that are involved. Friedman found for himself that he survived because of a “…mix of science, early detection, health insurance, and luck.”

We also assume that curing an illness is always the best outcome and that death is a defeat. It may be at the spiritual level that death is a healing, but that discussion goes beyond this week’s post.

Friedman writes, “Our culture likes its heroes undaunted, especially in the stories we tell.” He has argued with Hollywood executives that,
“… bravery in the face of death shouldn’t be the protagonists’ default setting. Because when we glorify strength without showing empathy for weakness, we end up with a toxic version of heroism … (and) we can no longer tell stories of grace, or forgiveness, or connectedness. We can no longer tell stories about real people – the ones who fail, the ones who are afraid and the ones who let themselves and others down. These are the stories we need more than ever, especially those of us walking on life’s edge.”

Courage lies in facing what’s real with a full range of feelings and learning what is true for us as individuals. The stories about ourselves, Friedman’s “real people,” do involve grace, forgiveness, and connectedness. I have heard more than one person say that they learned lessons from having cancer that they would not have learned any other way. It’s not in vogue today, but discoveries can also be made through honoring suffering. This is the age of the victim and we can be quick to refuse that role by focusing on fighting back, by being brave, and excluding anything that makes us seem negative or like a loser. But the stories about real people include the wisdom we gain from experiencing vulnerability, learning to endure, and discovering how deeply we need our connections to other people.

Friedman goes on to say, “The hard truth is, there’s a Terminator out there for each one of us. But when it finds you has nothing to do with how tough you are or how good a person you’ve been.”

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* TIME, “It’s O.K. to be a coward about cancer,” by Josh Friedman, August 7, 2017, Pages 21 and 22

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