Making Peace with Cancer

We don’t always get to choose how our lives play out.

Illustration by Harry Campbell

Catastrophic illnesses like cancer terrify us. You could argue, given their frequency, they should—although I have never found anxiety or worry to be particularly helpful in solving anything.

Every year, 250,000 women in the US learn they have breast cancer, and 1 in 9 women will be diagnosed in her lifetime. Each year, a staggering 12.7 million people worldwide receive a cancer diagnosis. Everyone will be affected by cancer at some point, either themselves or through caring for a loved one. So it wasn’t really a shock when the yellow crusting on my nipple turned out to be a malignancy that had taken up residency in my breast.

Even so, initially I was devastated. My life was about being up north in the woods, picking growing things out of the garden. It was about teaching and traveling to the ocean, about exploring faraway countries with my husband and family, about learning and giving to others. My life was not about breast cancer.

Author William Bridges developed a model of change and transition that has helped me negotiate everything life brings. In his model, change is often external, instantaneous, and whether wanted or unwanted, it brings endings, loss: marriage, divorce, retirement, or the death of a spouse or child. Transition is the slower, internal process of adaptation to what is. I have found Bridges’ approach useful because it speaks to the impersonal nature of experience, its universality and temporal nature. Life isn’t fair and everything passes. Instead of asking, “Why me?” when difficulties arrive, we can say, “Why not me?” And then we can begin to move toward acceptance and decide what to do next. This is mindfulness in action.

Bridges begins with the “old familiar,” which refers to our lives meandering in ways we recognize, changes occurring incrementally, perhaps even out of awareness. And then something ends. Maybe you find a lump in your breast, or (as in the case of my friend who had given up breast feeding long ago) you develop a case of mastitis that wasn’t. Change throws you off a cliff into the unknown.

Then, when you fall into the role of the sick, you’re pitched into the no-man’s land of transition. We may get stuck in our resistance to what life is throwing at us, becoming sad, guilty, resentful, anxious, or just generally stressed. We try to hang on to what we were just a moment ago, like being a healthy two-breasted woman. This is also when you hasten to reestablish control in what are often uncontrollable situations, like when I bought a $500 breast prosthesis before I even knew what surgery I was having. It remains in a drawer, as a reminder that not everything is urgent, even when you have cancer. Or like when I dropped a nonrefundable deposit of $1,200 on a wig because I had some notion about passing as healthy once my hair fell out. I hated it. My friend said it looked like a head warmer. This was a lesson in letting go. Bald during chemo actually became beautiful, and I crowned my head with henna.

Cancer is a process, and the practice of mindfulness, while not a cure, can help everyone navigate the journey, wherever it leads.

Cancer is a process, and the