Speak the Language of Healing: A Book for Making Peace with the Body When the Body Has Cancer
Writing earlier this week about making peace with the body prompted me to pull out a book that I haven’t looked at in a while. Speak the Language of Healing: Living with Breast Cancer without Going to War. It’s an intriguing title. An intriguing book. And one I was introduced to a few years ago now by a patient, Norah, who found the book during a time when she was trying to figure out how to live with metastatic breast cancer.
I’d known Norah two years before she got her diagnosis of cancer. She was a patient of mine, had seen me on and off for some stress-related symptoms and had been doing quite well. She’d suffered an enormous amount of pain in her early life, and she’d found a way to work through some of her grief about that time, and she’d begun to feel a sense of freedom—and possibility. She was preparing to move away from North Carolina and take a new job in a large city. She was excited about the move. She’d just made a trip to look at housing. And then one evening, not long after she’d made this trip to look at her new city, she came in to see me, and she was carrying a large brown grocery bag. She sat down, and she proceeded to take from the bag a bottle of wine—and then two glasses. And she handed one of the glasses to me. This was entirely unlike anything she’d ever done. In fact I can’t say I’ve ever had a patient bring wine and glasses to an appointment—not before or since. She opened the wine. She asked me if I’d take some. Sure, I told her. Sure. She poured a bit of wine in my glass, and then a bit more in hers. I waited. And then I asked. What are we toasting?
To breast cancer, she said. I’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
And so we toasted breast cancer.
She’d found a lump. She’d been in to see her internist a month before and at that time everything—her exam—including her breast exam—all was normal. And then she’d found this lump. And she’d gone in for an evaluation—a biopsy—the lump was cancerous.
Sometimes patients go through a phase of denial where they believe a serious condition is not going to affect their lives. And, sometimes, it would seem that physicians go through this. In this particular case, I was the one who stayed in denial for a bit. I thought—she’s doing so well, she’s just taken this new job, she’s excited, she has a breast tumor, she’ll get treatment, maybe it will delay her move, she’ll still get to go. Norah suspected it was going to be a bigger deal. Norah was right. Further evaluation revealed that she had disease in her liver and her bones. Stage four disease. She changed her plans. She began chemotherapy.
And as she went through her treatment—and her illness—and all the changes that this brought—and as she began to write about some of this, well, Speak the Language of Healing was the kind of book that she needed to find.
The book is authored by four women—Susan Kuner, Carol Matzkin Orsborn, Linda Quigley, and Karen Leigh Stroup. Each of the women has a different stage of breast cancer. And the thread that brings them together is a sense—in each of them—that the language of war—the language of winners and losers—no longer serves as a useful language for them when it comes to thinking about their cancer.
Carol Matzkin Orsborn, a woman with Stage II breast cancer, is the woman who brought the four of them together. She found herself leaving a fund-raiser for breast cancer one day—“a fund-raiser exhorting us to lead the charge in the war against cancer,” and she made four phone calls. She made one phone call each to the three other authors of this book and one to a literary agent, Linda Roghaar.
What I like most about this book is that it does not require one to be “cured” of one’s cancer in order to experience healing. Nor does it equate metastatic or Stage IV cancer with losing—or with failure.
The urgency of my mission picked up tempo as I increasingly encountered the ‘cancer culture’: a world in which people who die are ‘losers,’ and the ‘winners’ are those who emerge from illness unchanged. I knew that this attitude was useful in that it heightened emotions around our illness in order to raise funds for research more effectively, but it came at the expense of our spirits. As a seasoned author of spiritual books, I had long ago given up the idea of being a master of the universe. I’d learned to stop thinking of my inner world and outer challenges as enemies to be conquered, and learned to recognize the potential for true greatness in acceptance and compassion for myself and for others, regardless of the obstacles I faced. To create the optimum environment for my healing—body, mind, and spirit—what I most needed was not a mighty sword but rather a mighty heart: a heart that could hope, love, love and remain faithful in the shadow of mysteries that were beyond my comprehension.
The shadow of mysteries beyond comprehension.
I wonder now if that’s not one of the reasons Norah brought in the wine—and the glasses. Norah was Catholic and so for her drinking wine carried a sense of sacrament. Sacraments, as I understand it, are always pointing to mystery.
Perhaps, in some sense that I don’t fully understand and that I suspect Norah understood better than me–perhaps that’s what we were toasting: Cancer not as a failure but as a mystery.