It seems every other obituary these days starts with “lost her battle with cancer” or some similar phrasing. So much of our culture’s response to cancer is framed in terms of battle. The message is that if you are one of the unlucky 38.5% of people to get cancer in your lifetime, you’re supposed to do everything you can to fight it. This is probably the appropriate response for most cancer diagnoses, many of which can be cured (some quite easily, even) or at least survived for many good years. Accordingly, much of the cancer advice that is routinely dispensed is about the right attitude to bring to that battle. I’ve heard many stories of people who made some change in attitude or approach to life and went into spontaneous remission, even without treatment. These are good stories, and I am enormously pleased for a couple of people I know personally who have actually lived this miracle.
But the underlying message in this perspective is that we are responsible for our health, including our illnesses and recovery—or our failure to recover. If you die of cancer, you have lost the battle. You weren’t strong enough. You failed. So if our attitudes and faith determine our health outcomes, this means we have not been positive enough. We have lacked hope. We were too angry or bitter or depressed. We didn’t meditate enough. We didn’t pray hard enough. Responsibility slips into blame.
I do believe our attitudes or mental/emotional/spiritual state affect our health. However, having an effect is not the same thing as having control. I am sure my positive attitude is affecting my well-being (I can feel that effect immediately), but that does not mean I can make it cure me. There are other forces at play in our world. Some believe there is a larger plan devised by an omnipotent god. Others believe random shit just happens. We can’t really know what these forces are—that’s where faith comes in. But I’m pretty sure we can’t control everything. Nobody says of someone who dies in a car accident that if only they’d had more faith, they would have beaten that head-on collision. Why do we try to make those with cancer responsible for the misfortune of their illness?
The simple answer is that we do this because we fear cancer as we fear death. We want to believe that we have control, that if we do everything right – right food, right spirituality, right exercise, right attitude, right supplements, right therapy, etc. – we won’t get cancer. Or that if we do, we can heal ourselves. Sometimes, we can. But not always. Sometimes, there’s another force deciding our fate. Not having control is scary. But believing we have full control is probably delusional.
I am one of those extremely fortunate people who, until recently, enjoyed splendidly good health. I have good genes. My whole family is healthy and energetic. There’s no significant history of cancer or other disease in my family. That’s just good luck. My grandparents lived far into old age even with terrible health habits. My health habits have always been excellent. While most people feel that a healthy diet means deprivation, for me eating wholesome, organic, vegetarian food has always been a pleasurable indulgence. I adore vegetables. I loved to exercise: one of my greatest joys was running up the mountain, and I was filled with gratitude for the good health that allowed it. (Truly, I always ran with a big, happy grin on my face.) So when I turned fifty some months ago, it occurred to me that, if I didn’t get some weird disease or have a car accident, it was very possible I could live another fifty years. But then I drew one of the worst cards in the cancer deck. That’s just bad luck.
I know many people are praying and hoping on my behalf for a miracle, and I am immeasurably grateful for this. I pray and hope that my luck will change too. And if attitude really could cure me, I’m an excellent candidate. I can hardly imagine feeling more blessed or more loved than I do now. I often feel that I am in state of grace. I am grateful for each day. I live with purpose and joy. I am usually cheerful and sometimes in spiritual bliss. Yet none of this can guarantee a miracle cure. It does, however, make these last days worthwhile! And that is what I mostly pray for.