February 21st, 2012
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Photo by Lee Gant
Four people I know very well are bravely fighting cancer.  Currently, each person has a different kind of cancer and each person is in a different stage of treatment.  Through them, I have become more intimately aware of fighting this horrendous absolutely awful disease and I have learned a tremendous amount about developing resilience from them.

Two of the four people recommended a book to me, “Anti-Cancer A New Way of Life,” by David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD.  Servan-Schreiber is a scientist and a doctor who was diagnosed with brain cancer seventeen years ago and is currently in remission.

Before I opened the book, the following fact printed on the book’s cover grabbed my attention: “All of us have cancer cells in our bodies.  But not all of us will develop cancer.”  It blew me away to think that we are all walking around with cancer cells inside of us that could be waiting for some sort of a trigger.  Talk about refocusing your health priorities!  I am not a cancer patient but I don’t need to be diagnosed to restructure my diet or pursue smarter ways of managing stress and achieving a more relaxed approach to life.  Servan-Schreiber’s book is empowering.  It is chock full of nutritional and medical information and I have started incorporating small changes in an effort to be preventative.  Not that every meal has to be a series of conscious health choices but knowing that sugar contributes to cancer sometimes helps to make chocolate less appealing to me.  Notice I said sometimes.

The best parts of the book to me are Servan-Schreiber’s intimate insights into himself, the power of friendship and the “music of life.”  Feelings of helplessness and isolation can delay healing and block our immune systems from becoming stronger; a network of close friends or family can motivate us to fight and survive an illness.  I believe we are here to help each other but there is no getting around those times of crystal clear clarity when you know it’s you and you alone left to face a disease or a loss.  That’s when trust and mental toughness kick in.

Forced to confront an initial diagnosis of cancer and then a relapse, here is Servan-Schreiber revealing his vulnerability:

“I remember having one of those fleeting incidents, the kind that lead us to sense the frailty of life and the miracle of our connection to our fellow mortals.  It was a tiny thing — a brief encounter in a parking lot on the eve of my first operation.  From the outside it would seem trifling, but to me it took on a particular significance.

Anna and I had driven to New York, and I’d parked in the hospital lot.  I was standing there, breathing the fresh air during those final few minutes of freedom before admission, tests, and the operating room.  I noticed an elderly woman who was obviously on her way home after a hospital stay.  She was alone, carrying a bag and walking with crutches.  Unaided, she couldn’t manage to get into her car.  I stared at her, surprised that they had let her leave in that state.  She noticed me, and I saw in her look that she wasn’t expecting anything of me.  Nothing.  We were in New York, after all, where it’s everyone for himself.  I felt drawn toward her by a surprising momentum that sprang from my situation as a fellow patient.

This wasn’t compassion, it was a gut feeling of fraternity.  I felt close to this woman, made of the same fabric as this person who needed help and wasn’t asking for any.  I put her bag in the trunk, backed her car out of its space, then helped her while she settled into the driver’s seat.  I shut her door with a smile.  For those few minutes, she hadn’t been alone.  I was happy to perform this tiny service.  In fact, she was the one who did me a favor by needing me exactly at that instant.

It gave me a chance to feel that we were part of the same human condition.  We made that gift to each other.  I can still see her eyes, in which I had awakened a sort of confidence in others, a sense that life could be trusted if it put in her path — as it just had — the help she needed when she needed it.  We hardly spoke to each other, but I am sure she shared with me the sense of a precious connection.  That encounter warmed my heart.  We, the vulnerable, could help each other and smile.

I went into surgery in peace.”

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