Learning from COVID-19 & Cancer

“You don’t make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline.” — Dr. Anthony Fauci

“As physicians we’re trained to be reductionists. We rigidly follow protocol. But life is not that way. Cancer is not linear–it is completely non-linear. It lives in the science of chaos. There’s no single point of control. You need to attack it in a non-linear fashion across time and space, monitoring it and truly dancing with it.” — Dr. Azra Raza

Photo: Breast Cancer Cell, Wikimedia Commons

Chaos versus control: Oh how we humans prefer control, as long as we’re the ones wielding it. Give us a little power, the illusion of control, and we’re hooked; we won’t let go. Not without a fight anyway. Even when we can’t see with our eyes the viruses upon which we wage war. The body’s own cells even have a dog in the immortality fight, good everyday cells gone rogue (i.e. cancer) in that quest for ultimate control and mastery over all that cannot be explained or understood.

Both cancer (the body turning on itself) and COVID-19 (a viral attacker we cannot see and about which we know so little) have much to teach us about the illusion of control and the gift of embracing chaos. Living with metastatic breast cancer teaches one the hard truth that control is, indeed, pure illusion. I follow the palliative chemo regimen my oncologist sets forth. I accompany that with my own herbal supplements, shakes, and a vegan diet. I’ve been without caffeine, alcohol, and have had virtually no sugar in a year and a half. I exercise, practice yoga, garden organically, and prepare whole foods meals. All of this is wonderful, and I am fortunate to have the resources and access to what it takes to maintain a healthy, vegan lifestyle. Still…all of this does not equal control over the cancer situation. It’s still there, tentatively peeking out with every crack of bone or ache of joint. Cancer and I are still learning from each other and figuring out whether we can coexist, or which one of us will give in to the other. Control, you see, is highly overrated.

Photo: Social Distancing for Common Good, Daniel Lobo, Creative Commons

Take the control issues plaguing our country in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wow! Talk about living in the midst of hot mess chaos. There’s been a whole lot of blame slinging, twitter storming, supply/distribution hiccups, chain of command confusion, and conflicting information. Makes one kind of simultaneously consider throwing in the towel and curling up in a fetal position or digging in to your particular version of “right” and spend precious time pointing, posting, and screaming at others in your righteous hissy fit of indignation. Control comes with a high price tag and suspect warranty. Buyers beware: Maintaining an illusion of control may cost you your life or other minor inconveniences.

Most of us now have firsthand experience with loss of the illusion of control. Many people were only one paycheck away from financial destruction; they now sit in the rubble of despair. Others had to continue to work in front line health care, essential services, or public safety jobs. Still others suddenly found themselves without work, installed as teaching assistants for homebound students, and wondering where next week’s groceries are going to come from. There is no time or energy to put up an illusion of control when the new normal is anything but normal. Let’s all step back and take a deep breath. Forget the FOMO. Stop and smell the world burst forth in a riot of greens, reds, yellows, purples, and fuschia. Yes, smell the colors. Think outside the dualistic and limiting boxes of the past. Live the now and savor it. Live it and love lavishly every atom and molecule, every person you meet. Live and love the very source of love, the Creator of all things. Let go and live.

My body’s own rogue cells, the ones feasting on my skeleton and chipping away at the foundation, taught me a hard lesson: I have no choice now in letting go. I can do everything right–and I should respect my body and life enough to try–yet the cancer may very well outpace any human efforts. I can truly let go, give up all that does not truly matter, and experience the same level of disease progression. Or, I could be one of the ones for whom spontaneous regression and/or radical remission are more than hopeful words. Perhaps none of us really has as much choice as we think we do. Anything can happen. All we are promised is the now. Wouldn’t it be a pity to waste the one thing we really do have while scheming for an uncertain or unmanageable future?

There is so much we do not know about cancer and COVID-19. Yet we can’t let that prevent us from embracing the chaotic mess of life right now. If we let go and let love be our guide, chances are we won’t mess up too badly. Imagine yourself beyond the break, catching and swimming with the waves, letting go and riding them to shore. Learning to let go may be the toughest thing you ever have to do, but I’m here to tell you that initial reports are it’s worth it. Let’s keep one another posted! Here’s to letting go.

Sources

The quote by Dr. Anthony Fauci is taken from this Forbes online article.

The quote by Dr. Azra Raza is taken from her book The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer To the Last. New York: Basic Books, 2019, p. 175.

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