One of the things I have hated the most about being a cancer survivor is the fear I will be to blame if my cancer returns. I won’t have eaten enough leafy green vegetables, drank enough green tea, walked enough, prayed enough, done the funky chicken dance enough. Honestly, the list goes on, and on.
So, I’ve done some research. The upshot seems to be that the most promising new research is in immunology. Basically, we’re learning how to help our own immune systems fight off cancer. It’s a very, very exciting research. This means that if we get cancer there’s more and more hope western medicine will help us fight it.
Common sense also seems to suggest that the stronger our immune systems are the better chance we have of staying healthy in general, and perhaps also staying cancer free. So now I’m back to my primary fear: that it will be my fault if I don’t have a strong enough immune system to fend off the big “C’s” return.
“Ah ha”, I say to myself, “But stress will be the undoing of your immune system as much as anything else, so stop stressing”. And I try, with varying levels of success. Then, I think, “do the best you can and moderation, as always, is the key”. And this is how I try to live.
Three “Do’s” and three “Don’ts” I find helpful in maintaining this “moderation is best” mind set:
1. Don’t obsess, at least not without proof that it’s worth it. Ironically, scientists thought that beta carotene supplements would help fend off cancer, but they had to stop the study because it seemed like they might actually be making things worse. Remember when margarine was all the rage? Pay careful attention to “Snopes” and fact sheets, and to the word, “may”, as in “such and such may cause cancer“. This means it hasn’t been proven yet.
2. Do use your common sense. This was my grandmother’s best advice. Probably yours too. Protecting my immune system means a) getting enough sleep, b) learning how to love and be loved, c) walking a lot, d) doing yoga, e) eating as many veggies and fruits as I can, and f) drinking tea – I do this a lot because I am no good at meditating. And by this I hopefully mean, “I am no good at meditating yet.” Figure out what “protecting your immune system” means to you.
3. Don’t criticize yourself for criticizing yourself for not doing all of these things perfectly. Okay that sounds like a zen riddle, but sometimes it’s the best I can do. Perfectionism probably causes cancer. Only kidding. But I do try not to be a perfectionist even about stopping being a perfectionist. I was well trained. So were most of us. It takes a long time to untrain, and just accept being flawed. Therapy helps.
4. Enjoy life. The more I accept being flawed and feel less self conscious about it, the more fun I seem to have. In the moment. Sometimes I am still self conscious about this. “Oh I think that was a genuinely relaxed laugh. You must be enjoying yourself.” And then I realize that being self conscious about not being self conscious is a little ironic and laugh about that too.
5. Don’t accept other people’s criticism, whether silent or spoken. Most people are longing for something to blame when it comes to cancer. The easiest thing to blame for my melanoma is my fair skin, but people always wonder if I sunbathed too much. Luckily I didn’t. But what if I had? There are plenty of people out there who sunbathe too much and never get skin cancer. Surely some of it has to be chalked up to bad luck, and some of it to faulty genes, and most of it to the fact that we all die of something. I think of other people’s perfectionism though, or wish to have something to blame, as particularly bad mojo. I know they are doing it in an attempt to ward off this evil from themselves. I know that because when I do it too, that’s why. But I would prefer they found a less hurtful way to convince themselves that since they’re so much healthier than I am this evil will never befall them.
6. Develop a belief system that helps you cope with the awful fact that we will all die someday, from something. I hate it, I do, but I am coming to see that it really is part of what makes life so exquisitely beautiful. It’s partly because it’s so short. Be resilient as long as you can, and teach this to your children, but also learn the art of letting go. Learn the art of trusting in something greater than yourself that you will never quite understand, but you know it has something important to do with loving and being loved. And that somehow love remains as a constant influence, a constant reminder, like a gentle wind that buoys you up and carries you forward. More than anything I want my children, husband, family, friends, colleagues, clients, and anyone else who depends on my love and care, to know this if (and when) something does happen to me. You know, hopefully 50 years from now.