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Friday, December 9, 2011

Coping with Cancer – How I’m doing it

Once all of my surgeries were out of the way and I was stable and back to ‘normal’, I had the time to seriously confront what a diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer meant for me and for my life. Ever the student, I decided to enroll in an independent study class so that I could examine the academic literature on death and dying (D&D). I thought that examining what scholars of D&D have to say about the how society has and does deal with the topic might help me face my own fears. The paper that I wrote was ended up following the varying definitions of “The Good Death” in western culture, but included an analysis of several books written, at least in part, by people (or loved ones of people) who were dying (or had died in the case of CS Lewis) of disease. For the interested, these are the narratives that I included in my sources:

*Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom
*The Gift of Peace: Personal Reflections by Joseph Cardinal Bernadin
*Cancer in Two Voices by Sandra Butler and Barbara Rosenblum
*The Cancer Journals, Audre Lorde
*The Body Silent: The Different World of the Disabled by Robert Murphy
*A Complex Sorrow: Reflections on Cancer and an Abbreviated Life by Marianne Paget
*Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well Lived by Laurence Shames and Peter Barton
*Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams
(incredible book)
*A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

The following themes emerged from my analysis of these books:
1) Existential crisis/Liminality(the person set apart and outside of usual social rules)
2) The dying as sage/warrior/hero
3) Mind/body dualism (a sort of disembodiment, diseased body sabotages the ‘real self’)
4) Living ‘intensely’
5) Seeking the spiritual

By the time I had written the paper, I had experienced one through four for certain. What I hadn’t done is any active spiritual seeking. I have been and agnostic/scoffer for several years now, although I would occasionally attend mass with KB. I have since allowed myself to engage more fully in it.

In the book, Not Fade Away, Peter Barton makes the statement that he started to read and consider more spiritual things to help him not feel so bad about having cancer. This seemed like a reasonable idea to me. The university where I work offers a year-long retreat called Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life, so I joined.

In his commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, author and social critic David Foster Wallace stated that all people worship. The only difference is what they worship. Many people worship money and things, good looks or good health, but all of those things are transient and ultimately unsatisfying. I figure that worshiping a loving God, real or imagined, is probably better for me than worshiping anything else. KB and I started attending our local parish regularly. This has opened the door for both KB and I to volunteer, both at the church and at the local food pantry, something I’ve wanted to do for quite some time now. I’ve also become fairly active on, an online community for people with cancer. There is nothing that works quite so well to combat being overly focused on or feeling sorry for yourself than attending to other people who need help. I plan to continue this way for as long as I am able.

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