There was a time when my identity was organically created by my interests and perspectives, but subtly and incrementally I noticed my identity beginning to inform my perspectives, which is dangerous. Specifically, I started to sway towards the influences of foodies, individuals who flippantly use the term “natural” in place of “moral”, and new age crowds who rely on “sounds good” philosophy instead of facts. Embarrassing, I know. At some point, however, I started popping the bubbles of influence I had found myself residing inside and opened myself to more fluid considerations, looking at issues from the outside in rather than the other way around, and evaluating facts and data instead of creating arguments that fed my premise.
And it was a good thing I broke from those previous influences when I did, lest I found myself siding with those that say vegans don’t get cancer, opposing vaccinations, and outright rejecting the value of scientific discovery due to some idyllic, magical and moralist perception of the natural world. It was a good thing I broke from those influences, because, well, I got cancer, and that opened me up to a whole different world of medicine and considerations of what it means to be “healthy”, “sick”, “fixed” and “broken”, that I had the privilege of ignoring for so long.
If I hadn’t adjusted my perspectives, I’d like to believe I would have adjusted quickly, taking that scientific and medicinal slap in the face in humble stride, but I don’t know, I’m just glad I didn’t have to wrestle with it at all. Because when they said, “You have cancer”, I basically said, “Show me the operating table so I can lie down for you to cut me open!”
I know that doesn’t come so easy for others. For many, there is a distrust of the institutions of medicine and healthcare, a rejection of “Western” treatment, and probably a healthy dose of fear that goes into what is necessary for dealing with such a complex and pervasive disease. I won’t say I was deeply comfortable with all that was proposed to me by way of treatment, but I also had enough trust in the experts to know their experience and knowledge far surpassed my own, so what choice does one have really?
Ultimately, it wasn’t the surgery that bothered me, as seemingly medieval and insane as it presented itself. What I had more reservations about, initially, were the chemotherapy infusions and pills I took on a consistent basis for a full year and a half. The infusions I was relatively familiar with, being exposed to bags of clear liquid hanging above as a standard visual for cancer patients. It was the pills that caught me off guard. I didn’t even know chemotherapy came in pill form, so when the oncologist casually explained I would be on a chemo pill regimen twice a day for 2 weeks on and 1 week off, I honestly didn’t understand what he meant. The idea that one could take pills for their cancer seemed, well, too normal. It seemed like I was just taking tylenol for a life threatening disease. Like, “Just like that? Pop a pill and the cancer goes away?” Obviously, it’s not THAT simple, but the process is.
For a full year and a half I started taking three pills in the morning and two in the evening, both setting off a wave of low level nausea that were only the beginning of symptoms that told me I was balancing on a tightrope of keeping myself alive while at the same time engaging in a slow suicide. As the symptoms mounted, the fear and frustration of taking these pills heightened, but at the same time, they became incredibly normalized.
Taking pills was just something I did.
I even got so used to it that I became fascinated with timing my side effects, knowing when they would be at their apex, and planning my runs and general life schedule around the times they would be manageable and when they would be impossible. It was so very normal, that I even caught myself almost forgetting to take them. Yes, my Type A obsessiveness was no match for the ceaseless repetition of taking pills every morning and night, sometimes causing me to think long and hard whether I had taken them or accidentally doubled up. I was a pill popper.
Because I was broken…I thought.
That’s where my pre-diagnosis change in perspective really helped me deal with what was happening. It’s hard to be faced with a life threatening disease and not see yourself as broken, imperfect, flawed, or “not right” in some way. And yeah, I definitely wrestled with this consideration, having to reconcile my significant running abilities and stable health against a process of my body spiraling out of control and threatening to take away all that perspective.
I suppose I could point fingers. I think about the humanist, ignorant (as a lack of knowledge) and delusional idea of a god compelling people to embrace an idea of “perfection” and “being formed in his image”, leaving so many grasping for an understanding of a greater plan when their physical selves go awry. I think of, again, an ignorant idea of an “eden” or an original perfect natural world, compelled by a thinking rooted in our history that has been wholly devoid of understanding evolution, the cosmos, and our place within it. I think of the selfish separation of humans from a connected animal nature, unable to view our place in the world as undirected and insignificant as the value we place upon non-human animals. I think of all the fingers I could point, but then run out of fingers.
At the end of all this blame, I simply stop to refocus on myself and come to terms with what is happening to my body, why it is happening, and how to deal with it. And for me, I came to the understanding of evolution. I came to understand evolution as a process, not as THE process of life, but as A process, of so many dynamics acting upon each other, all with the compulsion towards survival. I came to understand this process as a physical reality, as a part of the world that is part of the universe as humans are part of the air that is part of the water that is part of anything and everything. And in that, this process of evolution is predicated on survival, it is therefore not directed, and then ultimately, it is PERFECTLY IMPERFECT.
That is, evolution works, it functions, and no part of that functioning demands for perfect bodies, for being “part of his image”, for an “eden”, for one right way to live, eat, relate, die, and survive. Evolution is a perfectly imperfect process, and the quicker we come to terms with this understanding, the easier it will be to accept when our bodies do things we didn’t expect. And we can accept them without ultimate blame and, most importantly, without guilt.
From there, we then have to do something about our afflictions…about whatever is happening, devoid of the confines of the previously stated perspectives of poverty.
So I was a pill popper, and I was killing myself while saving myself, and I was ok with that. I was ok with it because science has found it’s way deep into the recesses of our bodies, on a microscopic, cellular scale, to actually figure out what is happening, to some extent, when our bodies start cancering. THAT IS AMAZING. I mean, for all we don’t know, it’s mind boggling to me that I’m living in a period of time where we DO have this knowledge, that we have come to these discoveries, and that I can benefit from them.
And I benefit from these discoveries by taking medicine, by popping pills, by taking drugs in a way that many people have strong reservations against. And I get it. I understand that people don’t WANT to take drugs, because in a way, it’s an admission of “brokeneness”, of something being “wrong”…and that’s tragic. Taking medicine, now, to me, is not about acknowledging a moralist approach to our physical bodies as being “wrong” and “broken”, and therefore something to be ashamed of, but rather an acknowledgement of human knowledge, of curiosity, of using our conscious ability to maximize the process of evolution to it’s greatest extent, allowing ourselves to SURVIVE despite the physical world’s best conflicting approach to do the opposite.
Taking medicine, having surgery, and allowing my body to be poisoned isn’t something I’m necessarily PROUD of, but I will do so with the least amount of reservation I can muster because it’s an acknowledgement of incredible scientific discovery and a process of affording me the best life I can possibly live while I work through my insignificant existence. The last thing I’m going to do is be ashamed for staying alive and enjoying my life.
I want the same for everyone else.
I’ve been exposed to others who wrestle with this same conflict, of coming to an understanding of a physical process in their bodies they want to adjust. I deliberately avoid using the term “fix” or “correct”. In my case it was life threatening, while for others it’s a matter of quality of life. For some, they are dealing with depression and anxiety, which absolutely can be life-threatening, but for the sake of this argument, we’ll assume they are just problematic to the individual.
I have not dealt with these dynamics, but I can imagine how troubling they are to the individual. There are those that never even come to an understanding of their depression or emotional difficulty, going through life having to face obstacle after obstacle because they couldn’t see through the perspective block or weren’t offered the assistance. For those lucky enough to accept that something not of their doing is causing great anxiety and depression, they are afforded the potential of managing these emotional swings with medication.
Before our species understood mental “illness” (that term doesn’t sound appropriate) and before we had the medication for them to manage their emotional difficulty, they were, at best, regarded as seers and prophets of a sort, and at worst, subjects for absolute exploitation. Today, however, we are enabled with the knowledge to not only understand their obstacles, but to overcome them with medication. And yet, there are those that have decided to view taking medicine as a pacification of one’s “natural” (there’s that term again) self, as a suppression of one’s authenticity, as, to put it simplistically, “wrong”.
What’s wrong is denying the knowledge we have uncovered to develop medicines that allow individuals to experience the best life they possibly can in a way that the drawbacks are outweighed by the positives. There are those in my life who suffer from anxiety and depression and are taking medicines every day to manage those difficulties, allowing them to function in a world of rigid expectations. There are those in my life that I WISH would take medications to help their anxieties, against the idea that “drugs are unnatural” or “drugs are for broken people” or “medicine is for the sick”.
People aren’t broken. People aren’t sick. People aren’t unnatural. People are physical beings, elements of the physical world arranged in both a random and specific way to develop the human species, waiting to become rearranged into other random and specific forms, all a part of the evolutionary process of survival, death and regeneration. In that process, nothing is broken, nothing is sick, nothing is unnatural, nothing is imperfect. It just is. It is a continuous fluctuation of inconceivably complex dynamics that will develop obstacles of all types and degrees, and any way we discover to overcome those obstacles should be considered and embraced.
There was a time when I might have looked at my body’s cancering as “broken” and even “wrong”, but I fortunately shed that old world idea of moral absolutism, applied to the physical world, and embraced my place as a conscious being in an inconceivable, indescribably amazing process of chance and circumstance. So, although I would prefer to not have relied on a schedule of taking medicine for my cancering, just as I would rather avoid doing a number of unavoidable routines to keep myself surviving and thriving, I accepted that daily regimen without guilt or undue stress.
I write this because I am currently not taking medicine and it feels good to look back on that time without regret or frustration, but I know others struggle with this process daily. There may come a time when I have to start taking medicine to stay alive again, and I will do so with the same awe and amazement that we have the knowledge and means to keep me alive through the process. I only hope others harbor this same awareness and approach to their acts of survival.
We are not broken. We are not sick. We are merely capable of being alive and staying alive, and in that there is no shame.