The fact of issuing this second successive blog in so short a time is a decisive indicator of recovery from our bout with cancer. I’ve been thinking about ancient wisdoms as I am slowly emerging from the discomfiting “waiting period” that followed the cessation of my chemotherapy.
Immediately after terminating my infusions, Monica and I felt a nervous exhilaration that the worst had passed. Unexpectedly, I experienced a period during which an onslaught of side-effects took all of my attention. (It is unusual for many, to experience side-effects after chemotherapy… they usually accompany it. In my case, I experienced relatively fewer side effects during my infusions than my friends did; but the side-effects came along with fair intensity afterwards.) Following that, as my body metabolized and rid itself of leftover toxicity from the chemotherapies I’d undergone, I began to experience a constantly distracting and annoyingly disabling neuropathy. The neuropathy manifest itself in painful extremities: fingers that were numb but simultaneously tingled electrically; feet that gave me the impression of walking on cobbles even though the floor beneath my feet was flat and smooth. Ultimately, my doctor prescribed some medication that numbed the worst of my neuropathy.
Once I began taking the additional medication, my neuropathy began to feel as if the pain was muffled by a pair of good thick mittens. The neuropathy was still there, but felt as if it came from a distance. I haven’t recovered command of my fine motor coordination. I still drop things (although I’ve become more careful in anticipating conditions in which I might be expected to not have a firm grip on items. Often, I’ve noticed, the trick is simply a matter of slowing down a bit, and giving some thought to what I am about to pick up or move; something that, in adulthood, I’ve forgotten to do as often as I did when I was a child.)
Next began the uneasy period of “waiting” that has caught my attention.
• Waiting, first, for some bad news that my cancer had revived and had been discovered again in my body. I awaited such news knowing it would be impossible to learn that my cancer had been cured. There is no positively conclusive evidence of such an occurrence (however hard I might wish for it). Medical science has no tests that can confirm that a cure has been effected. Doctors only possess ones that can indicate failure: that a resurgence of tumor growth or reappearance of cancerous activity has shown up again. So, even if my caregivers observed nothing adverse taking place in my body, my mind wondered if, perhaps, the cancer was still there, lurking just beneath the sensitivity of medical equipment. If so, the bad news I awaited would inevitably arrive.
• Another type of waiting was to see “what would come next?” There have been enough surprises along the path after the initial shocking surprise of my diagnosis, that it seems rational (even for the optimist I am) to expect more unpleasantries. I know this to be true, because, even now, when I tell people that there has been no sign of my cancer’s resurgence, I find myself adding (sometimes sotto voce) “…at least, so far.” I actually dislike this in me. It is both an expression of distrust in what the professionals are telling me, and a kind of superstition: that if I say out loud that “I’m free of cancer!” then the cancer will “hear me” and return. Try as I might to rid myself of such a silly, nonsensical pattern, I still find myself muttering “…at least, so far.” I suppose, at its base, the expression is some kind of subliminal self-protection against potential future bad news… as if I’d known it were coming all along. Whatever its source I don’t much admire it, but accept it as an expression of lingering fear.
• A third kind of waiting I’ve been experiencing is for the arrival of a time when I would feel, again, as I had before all this began. Part of the process of participating in the course of my recovery has been attentiveness to my condition. I’ve written about this previously. But I can’t say I ever previously paid enough attention to “how I felt before”, to have a reliable baseline for comparison with how I feel, now. Even so, I felt a compulsion to try to compare “now” with “before”. “Now” seemed always to come up a little short than “before”. So I continued to await the impossible return of “before”. I don’t like this in me, either. I have always in my life felt that “now” is the best I’d ever experienced. The lesson this suggests is that—despite limitations, aches, and pains—now is the life that is mine to live… and it is still the best ever.
While the concept of waiting dominated my thoughts, I had begun to realize, “time, it was a-wasting”.
In a book he wrote about living with a mentally-disabled child, 1994 Nobel prize-winner and novelist, Kenzaburo Oe wrote about the importance of “accepting things as they are”. I take one meaning of Oe’s expression to mean “…not the way we might want them to be” nor—as is frequent among wisdom-writers—”…not the way things should be (or could be… if only we…)”.
Reading Oe’s phrase “accepting things as they are” helped me to recognize the counter-productivity of an attitude I hadn’t even noticed I’d begun to adopt: waiting (as distinct from living). Waiting, in some illusory way, suspends the present and leaves one temporarily suspended, too. But if life is to be lived, it must be lived the way we find it, not the way we wish it was; and certainly not in a condition of suspended animation, either.
Of course, someone is bound point out to me that “accepting things as they are” will surely lead to passivity. But that would be wrong. Life—as we observe it in all creation around us—is anything but passive. All life flourishes in its own context. Mine will only flourish if I resist waiting and, instead, keep engaging myself as energetically as I can with living. The instinct to wait surely is counter-productive, even toxic, with respect to my illness; as it is with respect to my mental and spiritual well-being.
I seem to recall that Buddha convincingly endorsed the value of living life fully in the present. I’m happy to be experiencing a vigorous return to Buddha’s sage advice.