No, not that one! I’m talking about “Cancer” (complete with the requisite capital letter to give it the gravity it deserves!) I remember reading a bumper sticker once that said “Cancer is a word, not a sentence” but when that word is spoken to you by a doctor, platitudes like this are utterly meaningless. I was living in Japan when I was told I had cancer and, as was the custom there at that time (still is as far as I know), it is not the patient who is first told. This is because there is a belief that if a person knows they have a terminal illness, then they just give up and lose the will to live. So it was my husband who was told first and then he and the doctor discussed whether it was the right thing to tell me or not. Happily for me, because I was a foreigner they agreed to tell me.
I remember the moment so well because I suddenly felt like I was in a TV soapie. I mean, it was so cliched – the doctor in hospital whites keeping his face a suitable blend of concern and neutrality as he announced my “sentence”, while my white-faced husband looked at the floor and nervously twisted his wedding ring round and round, for once, lost for words. An awkward silence followed as if someone had just farted and we were all trying to pretend no-one heard it. I’m not being flippant, but it really felt so much like a stage set that I almost started to giggle while I waited anxiously for the punchline.
The prognosis, however, was very good, and with surgery and radiotherapy I was told that I should be okay, but it was difficult to know until after the operation. When we left the doctor’s surgery my husband thought it would be a good idea to take my mind off the bad news (and his I suspect). So we went to see a movie at a nearby cinema. I was feeling numb and didn’t care what movie we saw – my husband chose Batman Forever. When I look back now, I think it was a hilariously inappropriate choice but perhaps he needed the noise and fast-paced action to drown out the voices that might rise up inside him. For a person who was always in control, it was a great shock for him and he felt utterly helpless. I think a lot of men are like him. As for me, I couldn’t stop the tape that just kept going round and round…”I’ve got cancer, I’ve got cancer…” trying to make it real somehow by chanting this over and over like a mantra. After some time I suddenly realised that, just as The Riddler was laughing maniacally in the midst of mental breakdown, I was saying this mantra out aloud but because the movie sound was so deafeningly loud no one could hear me. I remember so clearly how everything – the crazy Riddler, Batman in his mask, the scarred, damaged Two Face…and me – all seemed like a surreal dream. And it seemed to stay surreal right through the hospital and recovery time, until the day when I got the all-clear and I felt utterly overwhelmed with gratitude just for the blessing of being alive…and truly knowing it.
That’s when I first started to learn about meditation, which was what I was going to share with you before I got sidetracked with the background story! Sorry about that – I will share more about actually learning to meditate soon. But I just want to add, I feel really committed to sharing with you about how to meditate because I know that it can be a tremendously helpful tool in times of personal crisis. If I had known how to meditate when I went through my treatment and recovery for cancer I would have had more energy to focus on healing. However, I used a lot of energy trying to stay calm but not knowing how, trying to stop the tapes that kept whirring around my mind but not knowing how to, trying to suppress my anxiety and fear but not knowing how to. Yet now, many years down the track, life still throws the odd curve-ball but having spent time meditating (and I’m not talking about hours set aside every day – really just several minutes a day is enough) I know that I have so much more energy to focus on getting through the tough times without being so distracted by energy-draining negative thoughts. I’ll explain more about what I mean by this next time…