There is a dreadful routine to living with and being treated for stage IV, metastatic breast cancer. I’m undergoing immunotherapy – a type of treatment that tries to teach my body’s own immune system to recognize and target my cancer cells. My life has been synched to an immunotherapy calendar ever since my metastatic breast cancer diagnosis years ago. I have become an expert at predicting when side effects and symptoms will set in. It’s a ghoulish monthly party, and the guests always arrive on time: nausea, vomiting, chills, trouble breathing, bleeding, exhaustion, fever, mouth sores, pain, infections and sometimes emergency hospital visits.
Despite the clockwork of these cycles (start immunotherapy, wait for symptoms, get sick, go to the doctor/hospital), at the start of every new round I convince myself that the outcome will be different. This time, I am going to be stronger than my treatment. This time, my mind will outwit my body. This time.
But over the past year, after 28 rounds of treatment, not once have I “won” this secret battle with myself.
The cancer world is awash in battle language. Our culture repeats these warlike phrases over and over, like mantras. Cancer books love to traffic in this take-no-prisoners language. They talk about cancer “warriors,” fighting and winning a battle for health. They even encourage patients to visualize treatment as a sea of soldiers entering the bloodstream to fight off the enemy disease. In a lot of ways, it’s an attractive line of thinking. It’s the hero’s journey mixed with the glorification of war. It’s the us-versus-them theme — except in this case it’s us-versus-us. Cancer is one’s own civil war.
My reaction to challenges has always been to fight hard for what I want. I have always prided myself as a “doer.” I like to compete. I like to push myself. I like to win. When I started treatment, my plan was to take on cancer like I’d taken on everything else in my life.
But as much as I “battle,” I haven’t outwitted cancer and its punitive, punctual side effects. As I write this, I am bone tired, nauseated, and I haven’t left my bed in two full days. It is difficult not to equate sickness or weakness with a feeling of failure.
A year and a half ago I lost more of myself and people I love. This morning, I gave up on making a sandwich when I couldn’t open the jar. I am realizing that “beating” cancer isn’t about winning or losing. I wish it were, but it just isn’t.
I’ve decided that the real battle I need to fight is against this win-lose mentality. During the past few months, I’ve been fighting myself in many ways, succumbing to fear and anger about not being able to do what I once could.
But today I’ve decided that my challenge will be to develop a new brand of acceptance. Cancer has taught me that you can’t fight your way out of every problem. The solution is not to charge full speed ahead. It’s counterintuitive, but I try to remind myself that immunotherapy, too, is illogical on its face; you are poisoned in order to be cured.
I realize now that the experience of having cancer is more of a tricky balancing act: Being proactive about your medical condition, while simultaneously accepting and surrendering to the fact that, at least for the time being, you can’t change your reality as quickly as you’d like to.
Acceptance is not giving up — far from it. But like a prisoner in handcuffs, you only waste precious energy by trying to wriggle your way free. With cancer, the best way out may just be patience.