If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.
- Maya Angelou
The first time I had an experience with cancer, it was 1993. I was 8 years old. It was that year that my Uncle Jimmy, one of my favorite uncles, was diagnosed with leukemia. At the time, he and my aunt had been married about five years and my aunt had just given birth to my baby cousin. I was the first grandkid in our family and the responsibility of raising me had been assumed by my maternal grandparents. I got tons of extra attention because of it, including from Uncle Jimmy. I loved my father figures- my grandfather and my Uncle Jimmy, tremendously. When my little cousin came along, I secretly wondered if Uncle Jimmy was going to love me less or pay me less attention. That never happened, even though I know he must have been over the moon about his baby boy. I loved him even more after that. He was very young and always full of energy- he was the perfect playmate because he never tired of playing silly games with me. If I wanted to, he’d even play dolls with me. He would sit amongst my dolls and stuffed animals and be an audience as I sang into a spoon; he’d play his guitar and sing as I attempted to sing along, no doubt massacring the beautiful melody and making up my own words, as kids often do; he’d set his beeper to go off and tell me the “beeper ghost” was here and I’d better hide, and then call off the joke once he saw I was genuinely terrified. When the baby came, I’d go to my aunt & uncle’s house and they would teach me how to make a Slinky “walk” down the stairs, or how to “slide” down the stairs with my legs straight out in front of me and using my hands to lift my bottom up. It was a happy time.
Then he got sick. Being as young as I was, I didn’t understand what was going on. All I knew was that my uncle was very sick and that he was “going to go away for a little bit” (to MD Anderson in Texas) and my baby cousin was going to be staying with us while they were gone. I adored the the chubby cheeked little boy who carried his “Bubba” (Big Bird) around by tail and sucked his thumb, so I didn’t mind sharing my house and toys with him. I was also excited that while Uncle Jimmy was gone, we would get to take care of his two horses, Buckshot & Champ. But I wasn’t excited that he was sick. At 8 years old, I knew that when adults talked in that hushed tone of voice, nothing good ever happened. I just wanted him to get better so he could sing songs with me again, and do fun things like push a Slinky down the stairs, or ride the horses with me. When things got really bad, my grandparents made the decision to take the baby and I to Houston to see my uncle.
When we arrived, my mom (grandma) had warned me that my uncle may look a little bit different, but he’s still my same uncle that loved me. It boggled my 8 (and a half!) year old brain how someone may not look like themselves, but I barged into the room like a bull in a China shop, ready to see my uncle. I didn’t see my uncle though. Instead I saw a skinny man, sitting in a recliner, with a surgical mask over his face. He looked at me, and I looked at him. It shocked me to see a man who used to go to work and wrestle alligators (I promise; he worked for the US Department of Fish & Wildlife!) looking so frail. I couldn’t imagine him wrangling any gators in the condition he was in. We must have looked at each other for a long time before I sprang into action and gave him a fierce hug, with my mom poking me and whispering for me to “be gentle”. I was very confused by all the funny tubes and machines everywhere; the machines were constantly beeping, and my uncle reassured me that there were no “beeper ghosts” to be had in the hospital. He swore this with such solemnity that I trusted him – nope, no bad “beeper ghosts” here.
Later that afternoon, we went for a walk. I wanted to walk next to my uncle and hold his hand. My grandfather, having never had a son until my uncle married my aunt, walked alongside Jimmy; the two of them were engrossed in a conversation and I was thinking about whatever 8 (and a half!) year olds think about in their spare time. My mom followed behind, admiring the hospital’s gardens. My uncle stopped walking for a minute, saying he wanted a piece of gum. Looking back, I think he really needed to catch his breath and didn’t want us to see that. He turned to me, offering me a piece of Big Red. I took it, but didn’t open it. As my two heros started walking again, I hung back to be with my mother.
“Mommy,” I said, with my eyes earnestly searching hers for answers….”Mommy, can I catch cancer if I eat this gum Uncle Jimmy gave me?”
I don’t remember what my mom told me, besides the obvious ‘no’. It wasn’t her answer that was important for me; it was the question. I just remember that question, the fear behind it, and desperately not wanting to hurt my uncle’s feelings by refusing his offering for a piece of gum. I don’t know if he heard me ask that, and I’ll never know. I only hope that he knows that it’s because of him that I have patience whenever someone asks me if cancer is contagious, and because of him that I don’t think they’re stupid. I remember my eight year old self, I remember my Uncle Jimmy and that stick of Big Red, and I say calmly, “No, you can’t catch cancer. It’s not contagious.”
My Uncle Jimmy passed away later that year. He was only 28 years old. He came home to have hospice and the end came quickly. Incidentally, his first horse, Champ, died the night he came home, mere hours after my uncle going to spend time with him. Everyone said that Champ was waiting for my uncle to come home to say goodbye, and that somehow Champ knew that my uncle wasn’t going to get better and they’d be again together soon. Champ waited, like the champ that he was, for his old friend Jimmy, and then passed on to the heavenly pastures. I was devastated when my buddy Champ died, but I wouldn’t know true heartbreak until my uncle died shortly afterwards. My entire family was utterly heartbroken. This was my first cognizant experience with death.
This was also my first experience with cancer as a catalyst. After my uncle died, having never had to deal with the death of a loved one before, I wrote my first piece. I was always a good writer in school, and excelled at whatever writing assignments were given. But I never wrote anything on my on time at home, for catharsis, pleasure, or any other reasons, until Uncle Jimmy died. Overwhelmed with inner angst, I wrote a little poem that I sang as a song as a homage to my uncle and his musical talents, that I still to this day remember:
Some things we just don’t have control of
They just happen without asking us
Only Heaven knows why
Things can’t go sky high
We hate to see people suffer
We don’t like to say goodbye….
An avid reader, even as a child, the books of Lurlene McDaniel became a fast favorite of mine; I identified with the young people she wrote about that were deeply affected by cancer; Don’t Die, My Love was one I distinctly remember. In it, one of the main characters dies from – guess what? Cancer.
Now, at 26 and dealing with my own health issues, cancer is once again catalyst. While most of my personal frame of reference with cancer involves people dying (my uncle, other people in my family, a high school friend), some of it involves people living. So what I know people that have died from cancer; I also know people who have lived! I’m blessed to have a close friend who beat lymphoma using mostly natural and holistic methods. He inspires me to no end. He is one reason that I’m able to reframe my thoughts.
Following in my uncle’s footsteps, I will be finding myself at MD Anderson in Florida as a patient by the end of this month. I can’t tell you how many times people will quickly offer up their own “cancer stories” about friends & relatives who have had cancer, only to trail off with “Yeah, and then he/she died…..” and then stand there in silence, wishing that they could put their foot in their mouths. Trust me, I wish I could put my foot in your mouth too…maybe knock a few teeth out, or wash your dirty mouth out with a bar of soap.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if cancer is contagious. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to remind my friends that I’m not going to be throwing back Patron shots with them at the bar when I return to Florida. ”Why not?” they ask. You can’t send a blank stare or a side eye through a text message, but there are emoticons that work equally as well. (Although I think that a smack upside the head would work even better.)
Having now been up and about since surgery, I’m also getting used to people asking about my scar if I don’t have it hidden under a scarf. I’ve been asked several times this past week. ”What happened?” people ask. ”I had surgery,” I reply, wanting to leave it at that. ”Oh. What’s wrong with you?” they continue to probe. My inner monologue goes berserk: I’m sorry, what? What’s wrong with me? What do you mean “what’s wrong with me”?! What’s wrong with you is that your mother didn’t teach you manners….there’s nothing “wrong” with me.
From now on, I’m going to start telling people that I had a run in with an Alcatraz escapee or that I was impaled by a unicorn.
Just this morning, I was having a “sick” morning, and I was on the phone with my mom (now almost 80!), when she casually mentioned that she may as well tell me now, but on Friday, she’s going to have a mammogram, and she doesn’t think it will come back good. ”But I’m almost 80, and when you get this age, you know, something has to kill you…” she said nonchalantly.
I wanted to wash her mouth out with soap.
“Mom, that something doesn’t have to be cancer,” I replied with a firm resolve in my voice. Cancer isn’t a death sentence. It just means we need to relearn how we humans are meant to live – a little more lovingly, a little more naturally, & a little more gently. It doesn’t have to be a death sentence.
You see, us humans were never designed to eat things like McRibs, that share ingredients with yoga mats. We weren’t designed to eat foods out of containers containing BPA, because we shouldn’t be eating things doused in chemicals so as to preserve them. Cancer is a big fat kick in the ass that we need to have a conversation with our policy makers & legislators about why the U.S. is leading the world in global cancer rates, why there are chemicals & carcinogens found in practically everything, why we can buy things that are banned in the country they’re manufactured in, and why there are thousands of chemicals banned from use overseas, but less than a dozen banned in the United States. Our bodies just weren’t meant to withstand these things.
We have a lot of unlearning to do so that we can begin learning how to live. Cancer cells need to learn how to die; But WE need to learn how to live.
The real disease isn’t cancer. The real disease is toxic thoughts. Like a cancer, toxic thoughts fester, spread, and grow with ill effects on the host. Unlike cancer, toxic thoughts are contagious. Your brain has a specific type of neuron called a “mirror neuron” that scientists believe are responsible for traits like empathy and learning; mirror neurons do just what you think they would do based on their names- they mirror; they imitate. Limbic resonance, a rapid exchange of non-verbal information, also helps give you information about another person’s mood and works to bring you in synch. It’s why if you’re around someone in a bad mood, you may find yourself sinking into a depression, and why if you’re around a happy person, you may have a little pep in your step yourself. Whether you’re aware of it or not, your brain is constantly picking up information and ideas via your mirror neurons and limbic resonance. Some of these ideas might be that we can never make policy leaders listen to us, or that we can never change the way things are now in the healthcare system or that if we get cancer we’re going to shrivel up and die, or that no one loves us, or that these jeans make your butt look big. These ideas are toxic and these ideas are wrong. If something doesn’t make you feel good- DON’T THINK IT. FIND A THOUGHT THAT FEELS GOOD!
Your thoughts are important and they are influential. Think great thoughts!
As humans, we need to accept the fact that we aren’t going to live forever, cancer or not. We will die one day. But ideas can live forever. Save for the immortality, I don’t want my ideas to be cancerous in nature. I want my ideas to inspire & innovate.
Yes, cancer is a serious dis-ease and yes, people die from it. But there are a lot of other people who live with it, and beat it. Tell me those stories. There are a lot of other people who have gotten cancer and gone on to do great things. Tell me about them. Talk to me about Kris Carr, Fran Drescher, Dee Dee Ricks, Leigh Fortson & dream hampton. These are the stories I want to hear- stories of hope, because when we’ve lost hope, we’ve lost everything.
- Fran Drescher & I at the WIE 2011 Symposium in New York City.
Trash your toxic thoughts about cancer, or anything else, and create a new reality. Change the conversation about cancer. Get out there and make shift happen. Do it for me. Do it for your Uncle Jimmy. Do it for yourself.
Because me, I have a Jay Z complex: I will not lose. If you happen to be in Florida at the end of the November, do come by and say hello. I’ll be the one towards the front, with the big ideas, changing conversations and making shift happen.