I clawed my way back
after falling off the
edge of the world
Months of living in
a purple haze,
a black hole,
of space and time.
I lost my mind.
Little by little
I climbed back up
and I am
for how long?
the edge of illness,
the edge of life,
on borrowed time.
I am grateful
for what I have,
ever so briefly
I celebrate life.
for an instant,
for a moment
on a spider web
If you blink
you will miss it Carrie Burchardt-Pharr
Here he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber. Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver - red-stained in the ruddy fight.That dragon description comes from The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien and probably matches many of our images of dragons. They are thoroughly evil creatures, killing, stealing and terrorizing to amass a cave full of treasure to enjoy and protect. Tolkien reinvigorated the image of dragons as massively powerful engines of destruction who enjoy toying with and torturing all that comes into their path.
Not a bad metaphor for the struggle that begins once one is diagnosed with cancer.
My mother, Jean Foight Trumbore, was diagnosed with cancer in 1973 at the age of 40. Now that I'm coming up on five years over that age, I'm so much more aware of how young she was to be diagnosed with a fatal illness that ended her life 17 years later in 1990. She caught it very early because she was very attentive to health concerns, partly I think because her own mother died when she was a teenager. After just one cough or sneeze I'd be off to the doctor to be examined. This created a lot of friction between my mother and my sister and I because the doctors in those days loved to whip out the penicillin shot for whatever ailed you.
The day she found a small lump in her breast, she made an appointment with our family doctor. He had a biopsy done and the cells came back malignant. In those days the only choice women got was a radical mastectomy. She had one. Then she had radiation and chemotherapy. She lost her hair but didn't lose her will to fight. I was 16 and my sister was 14 at the time. She had a lot to live for and complete confidence in her doctor's care. At the end of all these treatments, she was declared cancer free and in remission. The dragon of cancer had been driven back to his cave where he peacefully slumbered … for now.
This transition, from a life or death struggle with cancer to tumor free remission and an uncertain future, is not an easy one. I remember well the pain and grief my mother experienced as she thought about the possibility she would die young. I saw her gradually finding acceptance that if the treatment failed, she had had a good life up until that point, had been able to bring two wonderful children into the world whom she loved very much, had a career as a librarian which was very satisfying to her, and a good marriage. I saw her gradually let go of the future and live much more fully in the moment, cherishing each day.
After the treatments eliminated her cancer, suddenly she had to adjust to being in remission. She had a second chance at life. Unfortunately, her joy was clouded by the fear that she would have a reoccurrence in her brain, liver or bones, the likely sites for breast cancer cells to metastasize.
For many, the first few months of remission are a precarious state of uncertainty. The person preparing for death gets a reprieve, but doesn't know how long this reprieve will last.
Of course, we all live with the threat of death by accident or sudden illness. Any one of us could walk out of here today and get in a car accident or have a heart attack or aneurysm and drop dead. This reality is far more salient to the cancer survivor. They live with the ever present dread that a few pre-cancer cells are lurking someplace in their body ready to mutate and mutiny against reproductive regulations. The cancer survivors sit across the table from cancer hoping the cards they are dealt each day will help them beat the odds and win the game. The prize: the next MRI will be clear.
Living with the Sword of Damocles over your head is very, very difficult. Paradoxically, the struggle with death can sharpen one's awareness of just how precious life is. Facing death and overcoming it is an intoxicating experience, one of the reasons roller coasters and bungee jumping hold such appeal.
A powerful metaphor for this kind of divided mind can be found in Beowulf. Towards the end of the ancient epic poem, a banished and condemned man discovers the dragon's lair. He beholds with delight the vast treasure and trembles with fear seeing the dragon slumbering right in the middle of it. He overcomes his fear enough to filch one goblet. When the dragon awakes, he immediately knows something has been taken and flies into a rage.
The cancer survivor sees much more clearly the vast treasure life offers and wants to more fully partake of it. A fairly common experience for cancer survivors is a reordering of their priorities and an expansion of their appreciation of life.
Yet there can also be a fear that if I really enjoy myself and fully embrace life again, I will tempt the dragon to wake and take revenge. If I protect myself emotionally and stay ready to leave this world, leave the treasure where it lies, the dragon will remain asleep. Let sleeping dragons lie -- if I don't, I may also suffer Beowulf's fate.
My mother and I had this conversation a number of times over the years. She would be in remission for five years then have a reoccurrence. Then another couple of years would go by and she would have another tumor appear. We noticed as she moved back and forth from illness to remission that each demanded a different kind of consciousness. When she was being treated, she had to come to terms with the fact that she might die. When she was in remission, she had to live as if she had many years ahead. She had to make plans to be around in the future, to plan vacations, take classes, start projects that she expected to finish. The stressful part of being in remission is moving between these two approaches to life.
She and I had a strong bond around this struggle because of my childhood illness. The severity of my intestinal problems when I was in high school and the poor prognosis for my condition had me not seeing much in my future to look forward to. Much of my religious interest in my twenties was learning how to accept sickness, old age and death. Reading the book, Who Dies. by Steven Levine, I learned the basic principles of Buddhist meditation practice and its benefits to help a dying person make peace with death. This is one of the reasons Buddhism was so attractive to me.
Yet over the years, my health has improved, no doubt because of the careful attention I've paid to my diet, dealing with stress and developing a healthy emotional life. Recently, my doctor ran a series of tests and told me I was originally misdiagnosed and have a much less severe digestive condition. During seminary and after meeting Philomena and marrying, I started reflecting on how much energy I had put into learning how to let go of this life. I started realizing I didn't really know how to live life to the fullest, scoop up a handful of treasure and dare the dragon to wake.
To live fully with an awareness of risk and danger is both terrifying and exhilarating. This is the challenge heroes of every stripe from around the world must overcome. Fear is the barrier that blocks the way. I know how often I've taken the safe road to protect myself instead of facing the possibility I might wake that sleeping dragon and incur its wrath. I imagine I'm not alone.
A fearful paralysis can limit us from being fully who we are. Fear has power over us often because of our uncertainty about the future consequences of our actions. Our freedom to act can become a prison as we weigh all the, "what ifs?"
Buddhist teaching and practice have been very helpful to me in this regard. As one who often lives in the future, I know how difficult making choices can become if I try to consider all the alternatives. Zen teaching challenges this kind of thinking to its core. The Zen master prods the student to experience for themselves that the future is a mirage, a place in which we can never live. The present moment is always whole and complete, the only place we can ever live. The enlightenment sought cannot be found -- because it is not "out there" to be found. A happy life cannot to be attained in the future but only lived in this moment.
The cancer survivor's future is threatened in a way that cannot be denied. The abstract idea of death becomes personal and possible. At the same time, they don't want to retreat from enjoying the fullness of the time they have left, whatever the duration. How do cancer survivors in remission negotiate this challenge? A couple of quotes:
Ronnie Kaye writes:
Finally, I had to confront a complex of issues that seem to be common for so many of us when we are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness: fear of recurrence, fear of death, mortality and vulnerability. How can we live well knowing that life is limited? How can we invest in the future if we have no guarantee of having a future? If we only have a limited time on earth, what is it that makes a life meaningful? These are just a few of the vitally important questions that surfaced.
The answers have not come in a sudden flash, but rather over the years as an ongoing process. Developing a mature spirituality, one that would support me in times of crisis, has been one result of being challenged in this way. Shifting my perspective on what makes life meaningful has been another. I used to think that we were supposed to leave monuments behind, reminding future generations of our importance. Now, I know that the purpose of life is to dedicate ourselves to our own growth and to touch other souls with kindness. I understand that even before breast cancer there were never any guarantees. This is simply part of the human condition. Therefore, I invest passionately in life because I refuse to sit around waiting for death. For those of you who are afraid to invest, ask yourselves the question "What if I live?" I believe that living a conscious, purposeful life is the way to win against cancer. Knowing that I won't live forever, I look for value in each day.
These lessons have been good ones, powerful ones, important ones . . . and I'm still learning. Breast cancer is no longer a tragedy, just a fact. So far, it has been a fascinating journey.
© Copyright 1997, Ronnie Kaye, MFCC
Kaye turns her uncertainty about the future into a pursuit of meaning. Instead of dwelling on what turns the future might take, she focuses on: how can I make my life meaningful today, "What if I live?"
Paul Honsinger writes:
I tell myself that, if I let fear of cancer dominate my life, then I have let the cancer win just a surely as if it had killed me. I will not accept a life overshadowed forever by cancer just as I will not accept a life cut short by cancer. Certainly, my life has been forever changed by having had cancer, but I have the choice of whether that change is going to be a source of strength or a source of doubt. I choose to make it a source of strength. I choose to be a stronger, more courageous, more proactive person who has learned from the experience of fighting cancer that my life is a precious gift. By making that choice, I am exercising control over my life; I am exercising power over the cancer that came into my life and disrupted it so horribly.Whatever the future holds for the person in remission, they have the capacity to choose how to understand and learn from their experience. With this attitude, adversity can be transformed into an ally in one's personal growth and spiritual development.
Sometimes those scary dragons guarding life's treasures can be discovered to be divine mythical creatures that bring with them ultimate abundance, prosperity and good fortune. This is why the Chinese view their dragons with such love and affection. Unlike the negativity associated with Western dragons, most Eastern dragons are considered beautiful, friendly, and wise. The Chinese Dragon symbolizes power and excellence, valiancy and boldness, heroism and perseverance, nobility and divinity. A dragon overcomes obstacles until success is his. He is energetic, decisive, optimistic, intelligent and ambitious.
I wonder if the Chinese are a little more insightful than Europeans in really understanding the nature of dragons. One of the great lessons of dream interpretation is to see that which is frightening in our dreams as sources of wisdom and power that we cannot accept. If one can become lucid while dreaming (or consciously try to reenter the imagery of the dream) much power and transformation can be released if the dreamer can face the terrifying image and ask it for a teaching. Rather than trying to rob our sleeping dragons, perhaps if we move toward them with love and compassion, we will see their true nature.
I'll close with a quote from a talk given by John Tarrant Roshi, of the Diamond Sangha:
Yun-men said, it is better to have nothing than to have something good. Out of that nothing, everything comes; that one good thing can become a prison. We have that gratitude for everything that comes by, and that goes on and on, so we just walk the Way. And whatever comes up, it doesn't really matter; we can't complain that this is not the Way: it is plainly the Way. We can say we don't like it but so what? It's plainly the Way. And if our hearts have never been broken, we can't walk the Way; were still too innocent. And that's no excuse. The Tao will then break our hearts for us, so that we can walk the Way. So whatever comes up, that's it. Walking is it, disappointment is it, joy is it, and underneath it all you will find that great sleeping dragon of joy that is always there, snoring away underneath your life, making everything golden.BENEDICTION (inspired by poem by Kate McCollough)
The muse of my heart lurks
in the loosely guarded chamber where dragons sleep.
My pen and poem play a strained and nervous game
of hide and seek.
Is it better, really, to let those sleeping
Their lies will keep to the morning.
Yes, better to let those lying dragons sleep … for now.
And maybe, you could lend me
the journal you keep your nightmares in.
Dragons fear ink, paper and pen
far, far more than St. George's sword.
Penetrate their sulfury haze, and slimy green
and lay claim to their power.
Go in peace. Make Peace. Be at peace.
Copyright (c)2002 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.