Kicking Cancer's Butt

Garden2 (1 of 1)
On October 4 I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. I'm going to start migrating some of my ongoing reflections to this blog. 

Here's the update from October 17.

I've been out of the hospital now for a week and the chemo fog has lifted. I had my first full night’s sleep in over month last night. Instead of waking up at 1:00 a.m. to medicate some ache or pain I woke up to the sounds of Nancy yelling at the kids to get out of bed for early-morning jazz band practice. 

“Noel! Lily! Get out of bed. I mean it this time. I need you in the bathroom.” Five minutes go by. “Are you guys awake?! Come on. I really mean it this time. You have to wake up.” “OK MOM! JEESH!” Five minutes go by. “Are you out of your bed? Oh my goodness…” And so it goes. One downside to feeling better and getting a full night’s sleep is that I will soon be re-enlisted as the morning bouncer to physically drag the kids out of bed.

It’s been two days since I took a pill for anything, thank goodness. I have so many pill bottles in my book bag that I sound like the maraca section of a mariachi band when I carry it anywhere. 

I’ve even been to the gym twice to get on the treadmill and do some light circuit training. I’m going so slow and lifting so little weight that I feel a little self-conscious. Maybe I need a T-shirt that explains to the others in the gym, “I work out like a 90-year-old because I have cancer.” 

My first trip to the gym was precipitated by frustration. Just as my intestinal distress was subsiding I was struck by debilitating lower back spasms. Instead of lying on the couch in discomfort I got up in a fit of angry defiance and went to work out. I spent 40 minutes on the elliptical and felt good, other than some back pain. When I got home Noel asked me what I was doing and I responded with bravado, “I was at the gym kicking cancer’s butt.” 

It was an empowering moment but that soon gave way to back spasms that were so bad I couldn’t hardly breathe. I spent the majority of that night slumped over an ottoman like I’d been washed ashore by a huge wave. It was the only position that provided some relief. To make matters worse, when we went to the doctor the following morning he recommended we get an MRI of the lower back to see if it was being caused by a mass. 

What? We had just gotten a handle on the extent of the cancer, and now this? I wasn’t prepared for more scans and more question marks about my diagnosis. 

So much for my triumphant efforts to conquer cancer by vigorous joint-friendly stepping on the elliptical. Thankfully the back spasms went away as quickly as they arrived and concerns about a lower-back mass have subsided.

My little failed foray into “kicking cancer’s butt” has got me thinking that defiant anger and metaphorical battles are not the most constructive ways forward. I need to fight this cancer but I can’t let this turn into a fight against my own body. 

This summer I studied the history of asceticism in the Christian church around food and I learned that too often food practices fell into this trap. Fasting became an effort to starve and punish uncooperative desires and tame the messy materiality of the body. Even if we’re not familiar with the history of the early church we are all familiar with instincts that lead us to battle our overweight, not-attractive-enough, fatigued, breaking-down bodies.

The early church spent considerable energy pushing back against these tendencies toward self-hatred and promoted a much more grace-filled approach. They envisioned food practices as a way to wake people up to the sacred wholeness of life; body and soul, soil and table, hunger and pleasure. They were means of holy cooperation that promoted healing and wholeness. Those are the kind of practices I need right now and that’s the approach that will serve me best.

There will be plenty of anger and frustration on the road ahead but I’m not going to turn that against myself or my cancer-riddled body. I’ll aim for practices that are energized by faith, hope, and love, and an approach that is built on the foundation of grace and humility. 

I returned to the gym last night for my second outing. I settled for 30 minutes on the treadmill walking like a limp noodle and a couple pulls on the machines. I went home, had a beer and called it a night. Gone were the grand visions of kicking cancer in the behind, but unlike my previous outing I slept like a baby.