Ian and I were sitting in the car last night in the driveway, finishing a conversation about breast cancer. In my therapy session last Thursday, I had talked about not finding my identity in being a cancer patient. How I don't buy into the Culture of Breast Cancer, with its pink ribbons, its stuffed bears, its endless support groups and young survivors' groups and media attention. I know that all of these things make the experience more bearable for many, possibly most, women with breast cancer. But for me, I've never wanted to put that much of my self—my time, my soul, my spirit—into being a patient. I have said it before, and, I believe, represented it as well through my many interests—there is a lot more to me than this situation.
Also, as I wrote about last year, I really don't like the almost universally accepted metaphor that describes cancer as a battlefield. And cancer patients as fighters in a war, fighters who win to become survivors, or lose to become victims. In a war, one side or the other is going to lose. Wars are violent, heartbreaking, terrifying. Perhaps those things are inherent in having cancer . . . but perhaps they are not. Perhaps we have just learned to interpret our experiences that way, and perhaps we have the capacity to learn a different course.
My therapist asked me how I did define my experience, if not in the usual way, and I told her about the Life Tapestry. I don't know if this was my idea or my mother's, but I love this image:
My life—any life—is a tapestry of events, skills, feelings, emotions. In my tapestry, I have rich, beautiful scenes of travel, of study, of exercise and achievement, of love and friendship. And running through it, I have an acid green-yellow thread of cancer. In large amounts, this bile-color is not beautiful. But woven, as it is, through the rest of the tapestry, it is beautiful. It adds depth and mystery, and allows the designs and pictures to be more visible, clearer. Experiences are enhanced, highlighted, by this sour edge that keeps the tapestry from becoming cloying, too sweet—boring, even. It's the pinch of bitterness that makes the dish exquisitely gourmet, and not simply tasty.
Ian nodded in agreement—he has heard this image before—and then he said, "Well, there's a difference anyway between cancer and other diseases or medical problems—cancer is you. It isn't an infection by an alien source—it is YOUR BODY misbehaving. And so if you think about having to go to war, you're going to war with yourself—you're fighting yourself. And how effective or healthy can that really be?"
Holy shit. He is absolutely right.