Until my cancer diagnosis, I’d never been ill. I was terrified and nothing was helping me conquer the fear. Initially, I felt a traumatic paralysis, the fast-breathing, huddled fear of a wounded animal lying still in the brush, expecting to be struck again. This is worse than outright pain: this is withdrawing from anything that can help. This is the power of fear—to make us recoil from anything larger. While in this state, nothing flows through, and therefore, nothing cleanses or enlarges. The center remains cut off when it needs to be renewed more than ever. My life has taught me that how we first stand after doubling over is crucial to whether we will heal at all.
In time, I was broken of my illusion that fear could be conquered. Instead, I began to watch the winter trees as they let the wind through, always through. Since then, I’ve learned that fear gets its power from not looking, that it’s intensified by isolation, that it’s always more strident when we are self-centered. Now, when I am full of fear, which can’t be avoided, I try, though I don’t always succeed, to break its stridency by breaking my egocentrism. I try to quiet its intensity by admitting my fear to loved ones, and I try to disempower its exaggeration by looking directly into exactly what I fear. I try to know that though I can be fearful, I am more than my fear.
But life under siege hides none of its difficulties. The endless decisions that must be made, each imperative and of great consequence, do not wait for us to manage our fear. Indeed, one is always thrust into the world of cancer and there is no escort. When I was thrust, I uncannily met my counterparts, Janice and Tom.
Janice was a strong, determined woman who believed primarily in self. She did not believe in medicine and therefore put her entire well-being and treatment into her own hands. She rejected all medical intervention, and if she utilized anything greater than her self, it remained a secret liaison till the end. She was tenacious but died a painfully drawn-out death. Now there isn’t a doctor’s visit where I don’t feel Janice over my shoulder. I understand her resistance more and more, for the things we’re asked to do to preserve our well-being are not pleasant. Yet in the hard breath before each decision, I see her reliance solely on self and fear its imbalance.
Tom, on the other hand, was adrift. He seemed to have lost his sense of self and had a disinterested, entropic view of the world. He put his fate completely in the judgment of medicine. And so I watched Tom grow smaller in the space he took up. I watched him give no resistance whatsoever to what doctors wanted to do. William Blake said, “Without contraries there is no progression.” Tom presented no healthy contrary and thus there was no progression. He became invisible, vanishing piece by piece. By Christmas of that year, he no longer knew who I was. By February, he was dead.
I feel roughly blessed to have had Tom and Janice as specters of where I must not go—though the further I travel, the more compassion I have for how easily, in any given moment, the Tom in me or the Janice in me can take over.
While Tom and Janice died, I was broken and healed and broken again. The first time, my tumor vanished. It was a miracle. When its sister began to thicken the rib in my back, I began with fervor the same rigorous visualizations and meditations and intensive prayers for hours each day, desperate to enlist the same overwhelming grace. But after six weeks, I was exhausted and humbled: the tumor in my rib had only grown. I thought I had failed. The fear returned, now as terror. And in making my decision to have that rib removed, I heard Janice spurn my doctor and saw Tom bow with indifference. But I believe God, in this strange, familiar terrain in which life and He meet, called me. So, I waited till these elements merged, way down beneath my understanding, and there, in what felt like calm balance, I said yes, help me. With that, it became clear that this time, the surgery was the miracle.
Once home, it hurt so much to breathe that it took several tries to make it to my rocker. There, moaning, I thought: The part has no peace unless it can feel its place in the larger whole. I struggled, in my pain of breathing, not to become the pain in my breathing. I tried to focus on birds and light and the sway of trees. I petted my golden retriever while inhaling—anything to soften the cut of my missing rib.
Within weeks I had my first chemo treatment, which was horrific: vomiting for 24 hours, my missing rib lancing me with every heave. For the next three weeks I vowed I would not continue, would never open my arm to that needle again. But in the dark center of my pain, an unwavering voice said: Poor, challenged man—the treatment is the miracle. And so, with more terror than I have ever known, I said yes, and opened my arm to measured poisons.
Finally, after four months of treatment, I sat in our wellness group, where truth could relax its way out of hiding. And there I was asked to draw an image of my cancer and my treatment, and suddenly I knew—the cancer was gone. Now the treatment was killing me. The miracle appeared as the silent certainty with which I took my good doctor’s hand and said—no, it’s over. I won’t do this anymore.
What a revelation—who would have guessed—that miracle is a process and not an event, and that each situation demands a different aspect of miracle: visualizations, yes, craniotomy, no; visualizations, no, thoracic surgery, yes; chemo cleansing, if I must, chemo poison, no. And underneath it all: willful, constant prayer, an unrehearsed dialogue with God, as Martin Buber puts it.
Still, even years later, I am not exempt from the fear and fragility. We’re always asked to enlarge our sense of things in order to right-size the fear and to carry our fragility. It’s a constant challenge to find the current of life and to trust it, to behold the depth of what-is until a relaxation of intent and anxiety allows us to find the spaces in our individuality that we then know as Spirit. Only through the passageways of Spirit can we be lifted when we’re heavy and rinsed of the exaggerations of our fear.