Having cancer

Histological slide of mantle cell lymphoma

I have mantle cell lymphoma (stage IVB for those who are interested in such things) – an uncommon form of cancer which affects the white blood cells – specifically the B-cells, which are responsible for attacking infectious agents which come into the body.

Having cancer is a funny thing. The very word brings dread. In my case the chances of remission from lymphoma is good (around 90% with the sort of treatment I’m on – called R-hyperCVAD). Long-term survival is a different thing – the statistics for mantle cell lymphoma are not good in both senses. In the first sense, since it is rare and wasn’t described until about 10 years ago, the statistics are as reliable as they can be – but that isn’t saying much. In the second sense, survival rates for mantle cell lymphoma are, according to the not-so-useful statistics, around 50% over 5 years (which is referred to as cure).

Back to the experience of having cancer. It is funny – you have something in your body, something arising from yourself, which is doing you harm, and over which you have little control or agency to affect. It makes me feel a bit powerless and unsure about what options there are. I’m confident the care I’m getting is the best that I can get, so although it is uncomfortable and certainly inconvenient, it is the best thing I can do. I maintain a good frame of mind, try to look after my mental and physical health, eat a fairly good diet, take exercise in sensible forms, laugh, cry and pray.

I understand the drive of the patient to grasp for things they can do. I suspect this is why we are so easy to lure into implausible cures offered over the internet, in health food stores and so on (on which, see Quackwatch for a useful guide about how to spot fake cures and promises, and false prophets). I’m sure that sensible natural or alternative health care can do some good in supporting the body through the processes of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but I’m also sure that no amount of green tea or antioxidants, a macrobiotic diet, magnets, ozone therapy or whatever will cure cancer. I wish simple, low-toxic and cheap solutions did work – they would ease our lives markedly. But the truth is that there are unscrupulous and deluded people out there who will take advantage of us. Having said all that, there are natural some approaches which seek to work hand-in-hand with mainstream cancer treatment. The one I’ve been most impressed with is Petrea King’s Quest For Life program, which you can find in her useful, sane and easy to read book. As a meditator I can certainly vouch for the usefulness of the mindfulness approaches she outlines in the book, and the other advice seems mostly sound to me too.

And so, I go on. Trusting that ultimately whatever happens to me will be the will of God, and that I’ll have the grace to accept it. I know that sounds like fatalism – it isn’t. I hope to live for a long time, do many more exciting things, and grow into the person I’m meant to be. There’s much to be done.

Pinned to my wall is this prayer, written by another hero of mine, Thomas Merton:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. – Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude
© Abbey of Gethsemani


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