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Combating Cancer with Words

July 31 2000

I found an interesting article by Jan DeBlieu at Utne.Com entitled Sacred Cartography. Jan's article raises the notion of mapping our most intimate terrain. 

In 1300, the Atlantic Ocean was an unknown sea. No one knew how big it was, or whether it was possible to sail across it. Because it was unknown, people imagined it was full of terrors. They believed in sea monsters, such as giant serpents, which could gobble up a whole ship. It was only after the renaissance voyages of exploration, led by great shipmasters like Diaz, da Gama, Columbus and Magellan that the world map was unrolled with dramatic suddenness. Prior to this time map makers often borrowed on fantasy and myth to fill the gaps on their maps. 

As a young girl growing up in country Victoria, Australia, I was obsessed with maps of the world and of the United States in particular. I marked my fantasy journeys and dreamed of following the trails of great explorers. Then, when Darryl and I went on camping trips all over Australia, it was me who held the maps and took on the role of Cookie Cat, in the footsteps of the renown Captain Cook. 

Now, since my husbands bowel cancer, we find ourselves facing new terrain with no map to cling to. Chemotherapy is a silent, mysterious treatment that fills us with some awe. You cannot see what is happening within the human territory as the chemicals invade the bloodstream. The nurses and doctors can only tell you what might be the side effects but they make it abundantly clear that it is very much a balancing act. The chemotherapy also attacks healthy cells so we all hold our breath and wait.

As I accompany Darryl during the chemotherapy phase of his treatment I thought I would chart some maps of my own and try to accurately record the terrain. Then, there will be pathways for others to follow. Today it was all a very new experience. Darryl sat in a comfortable arm chair while the drip entered his system - but the process took awhile because the chemotherapy cocktail was late coming from the chemist. We both felt our anxiety rise.

The trouble is that when you sit in an Oncology Day Ward you see too much. One man who had clearly beaten the odds was cheerful that he was still alive - while another looked terribly sick and was waiting to be admitted. So needless to say we were glad to be freed to go home. I was very glad to be able to retreat to the silent anchor of home and I have just come back inside after planting young plants in rich soil. I had three animals watching me, lounging as I worked. The youngest, a feisty kitten named Apollo after the Greek God, played and scampered while Monty, my tricolor Cavalier was happy to just watch in silence.

If you could make a map of your own what would it be? Join a discussion in my forum at Talk Dungeon on Sacred Cartography and write about the maps you feel a need to make. There may be many that you wish to make so you could always begin with a list of possibilities

July 29 2000

Is life complete with food, shelter and society? Obviously if we have sufficient food and water we can survive. The companionship of family and friends is a bonus and helps us to enjoy life. However, unlike the animal world, who benefit from these same basic requirements, humans have the capacity to foresee being hungry or sick and know the feeling of apprehension that comes with such knowledge. So when the surgeon said that Darryl had bowel cancer, but that our primary goal was to get him better, I couldn't help feeling the weight of apprehension or wondering what he was getting better to do. Better to get sick again? Better to then waste away? Spears, regulations, food, water all seem pretty weak opponents in the face of such a reality. It is not quite as simple as the surgeon blithely suggested.

But then, as time passed, I wondered what being well really meant. The surgeon's knife has deftly removed the diseased parts of the bowel and the oncologists chemical arsenal promised to close the gap by attacking any cancer militia units infiltrating healthy zones. Unlike primitive man who, in the face of illness, symbolized the illness as the work of an evil spirit, we can do more than symbolize the cure by using counter charms. Or, can we?

Did primitive man have the right idea? When primitive man symbolized the cause and the cure it represented an important step forward in thinking. Whether the actions worked is of little importance. The main object was of closing the gap so that anxiety could be allayed was met. Symbolic rituals and actions have the power to provide comfort. They genuinely allay fear and let you view your world differently.

To banish the cancer we have been participating in a similar process. Our faith, that the Oncologist has a counter-charm that will send the cells back to their sender, is allaying our worst fears. This faith helps us put the world into a shape we can comprehend. The truth is that reason plays an important part in our lives. Our mental faculties were developed by the way our ancestors tackled problems. The challenge has always been to find an effective response to our surroundings and survival. It was an effective response to need to make tools for felling trees, killing animals, building shelter and hunting stations. Similarly, tribes emerged by no accident. They provided survival and security for groups. By working together our ancestors joined force and collectively strove to improve their lot. 

Today, in the twenty first century it is easy to forget all of this because mankind has created an illusion of permanence. With may of the basic survival issues long resolved there is no longer as great a need to rely on the community. But my recent experience suggests that we separate ourselves from old principles at our peril. When the 'wheels fall off' the old, tried and true mechanisms sustain us and the notion of man not being an island sounds like a very profound statement.

Despite what we may like to believe there are still gaps in our understanding of the universe and it is a mixture of history and myth that contain important lessons about how to live. The people of the Bakongo tribe in central Africa tell stories of Nzambi Mpunga (the supreme Being who made the world and punishes evil), and while they do not claim to know what he looks like or what his character is like, they have drawn conclusions from the stories. They assume that there is a Creator whose demands are concerned with human conduct. 

Exploring such stories at a time like this is not just pleasant romancing. It is a genuine endeavor to make sense of the inexplicable - the bits we do not want to think about. Reason tells me that we are dealing with an organic issue and I refuse to believe that anything we have done is being punished by this medium. Reason says that all living things are organic. My prized Fuji Cherry tree clearly has problems with its boughs - not because it has been a bad cherry tree but because of some environment factors where it is placed. But my heart still has fears.

It is the unknown that has the capacity to inspire a deep fear. It has always been so. The challenge now is to face the unknown, to name and identify, to tackle our problem head on. Reason will help but some pleasant exploration of general oral tradition will also bring comfort. There is a place for both reason and imagination at a time such as this.


July 26 2000

Hestia was one of the most revered of the Olympian goddesses. The goddess Hestia was often linked with the god Hermes as co-protector of the home. Hestia, the virgin goddess of the hearth, was associated with stability, permanence and prosperity and was usually represented as an austere woman, seated and shrouded in robes. There are few stories about her in the mythic tradition, but she was clearly of great symbolic and ritual importance. She was said to attend to the naming and legitimization of children, which involved carrying them around the hearth. Every house had its hearth, and thus its focus for the worship of Hestia.

Born under a feminist rising star, into a technological culture I was destined to be bound, force fed the notion that I must reject femininity and domesticity. I was taught that I had to be self sufficient, that I could be a mother but I must also be a career woman who matched any one in my chosen fields. I was expected to be all things to all people and better than all men. To pay my feminist dues I spoke out and fought my way to the top of the tree in all the fields I participated in - only to find myself sitting amid weakened boughs.

At this stormy time the goddesses have each come to offer their comfort. Aphrodite reminded me of the need to love, while it was Hestia who whispered to me and reminded me to protect my home, to be stable, permanent and rock solid. It was Hestia who, with Hera's blessing, freed me from the chains that bound me, purified me and washed away any desires to play political games in the workplace or local government. Athene pointed out that there are some battles not worth fighting and has gently insisted that I remove myself from my stressful, negative working environment. She said that I should not spend one minute longer, soldiering on, frittering away time with people who do not share my philosophical position. There are other more important battles to be fought. 

The greatest change is the change that takes place within ourselves. 

My place is at the hearth for it is at the hearth that I find comfort and some sense of permanence. It is at the hearth that I can have greatest influence and bring about real change. It is here that I can, unashamedly be who I really am.

July 22 2000

Days merge into one another, visitors fill the house, flowers keep arriving and Darryl is gradually gaining strength after major surgery. But reality stays tucked in the background like a dull toothache. We keep identifying the pain, naming the unspeakable reality that there are no guarantees offered in the Oncology Department, but still the dull ache lingers, gnawing away, it's sharp teeth piercing. From the outset it has puzzled me how you are supposed to live with a grim diagnosis. But of course you do. You don't really have much choice. And, you cling to hope - an olive branch thrown out to hang on to.

We are determined to spend quality time together. After all, I suspect that, as people who have spent their lives focusing on doing business, making money and shouldering endless responsibilities approach the Pearly Gates they, like Lot's wife, must look back with some regret about unfinished business. For a long time now I have been shedding responsibilities. Cancer is just the latest challenge for us - the encore if you like. When we experienced grave emotional problems after the savage corporate cuts of the early nineties changed our working lives, no one really wanted to know. A physical disease is easier to identify than a burn mark on the brain. Physical diseases follow an all too familiar pattern, while emotional issues are unpredictable and ill defined. But now the last of my links to mainstream must go. I will not spend another minute in a political environment or wrestle over what is crap. I simply to not have enough energy. All my energy is being directed towards caring for myself and my husband and family. I am wearing my commitment to family and friends on my sleeve so that, unlike Lot's wife, I will not need to look back, but will be able to let go and move on to whatever comes next.

Over the years I have often had my writing groups go through a relinquishment process, but this is real now. My faith is being tested and I am determined to write my way through all of this. Of course, the ultimate would be to be stripped of pen and paper for they are my true lifeline, my personal way of surviving instead of taking flight out of fear. Writing helps me to identify my fears and to express and name them. In his brutish state early man did not have this luxury so he was comforted and gained strength from oral accounts. It was the Muse who gave us the poets staff and encouraged us to write down our experiences and emotions. Hesiod was simply the first to hold that staff, passing it on like a baton to the writer's of the future. I am very proud to hold that staff as I walk this well trodden path.

July 18 2000

Just as I was beginning to settle a fresh wave of change has swept through my world. After being with doctors, nurses and watching the hierarchical groups of hospital staff beavering away I am now confronted with new groups of service providers. Neither Darryl or I want to feel cheated out of quality time together or the chance to live our dreams so today we have begun the process of meeting with real estate agents, our financial advisor, my union - in an endeavor to cut through to the basics and make real life decisions. 

In order to buy the bus and hit the road (Priscilla Queen of the Desert move over) the reality is emerging. We will have to cash in our assets and down size and buy that country property we have talked of buying for years. Our finance man was upfront and cut to the chase - spelling out that if it is quality of life we are seeking we would have to bite the bullet.

Holy hell! I am reeling. Over the past ten years 242 has been our anchor, the place I have retreated to, a safe haven away from the insanity of mainstream and corporate talk. It is the place that holds so many of our memories - the place where we have watched our children grow and flourish. It lies in a part of the world that I have been deeply committed to. I taught at the local High School before the Kennet Government closed it down. I served as a Mayor and Councillor in the City of Fitzroy before the Kennet Government amalgamated three councils into one colossus. For great chunks of time I have lived, worked and been an active participant in the community here. Indeed, when the glorious flowers arrived from the Mayor and Councillors of Yarra I was reminded that, twelve years on, the City remembers its sisters.

But so much has changed, the old ties have long been severed and the place has changed. Just as I moved out to work in an outer suburb, only returning at days end and of weekends, new people moved in. Disenchanted by the flaws in democracy, the compromises that were essential I walked away and never glanced back - rarely picking up a local paper to read what was going on.

It seems that this whole 'thing' is gaining a life of its own - gathering momentum and moving at a rapid place. It is bigger than all of us. Facing death squarely in the eye demands change. It has to. If I am serious about living differently, if I want death to move elsewhere for now, I have to trust the process and move with the flow. Clotho and her sisters are weaving frantically, helping to put fine details to an emerging landscape. But like true artists they will not let me, their subject, look to see what they have planned for me. They insist that I might not cooperate, that I have not considered all the possible scenarios and that I need to think laterally. Hmm! Feels like I am thinking so laterally I am likely to end up horizontal. Does any of this make sense? 

July 16 2000

Two weeks have passed and there is still this feeling of disbelief that engulfs me. Generally I am numb. The body has provided some kind of morphemic drip - a drug that blocks my mind to the reality that Darryl may die. But my dreams reveal the deep concern that is tucked waiting for the time when I can deal with this. 

Last night I found myself on a vast ocean liner that everyone knew was doomed. We headed to Fremantle, of all places, and the last stretch involved entering the sea through some kind of swirling breakwater. The boat negotiated the narrow sliding pathway and moored. But we all knew we had to return and that somehow the boat had to go up the sliding water path and that even if it made it the end result would be the same. The truth was that we were not going to make it back to our home port. I wanted to catch a plane but knew I couldn't, so, with a fatalistic, sinking heart, boarded and resumed the journey. The first part was horrific as we were dragged through gushing water that poured down over us. We clung to the rails and were dragged up the boat as it climbed upwards to calmer waters - bodies terribly bruised by the ordeal. Suddenly we realized that some people were missing and the holiday cruiser's crew were behaving severely and cruelly.

It was good to wake up. But then I remembered the last fortnight and felt cold and shuddered. Darryl, who has been in our spare bed while he is recovering from major surgery and our dogs can leap unexpectedly on the bed, appeared at the doorway and slowly, painstakingly, slid into bed with me. As we cuddled I felt better but the ominous gloom has lingered. It is only writing which is clarifying things and helping me to see that this dream is not necessarily something to be frightened of. There are many interpretations that I can make, not the least of which is that I am being reminded that all life is fragile and none of us are given immortality. So I better live feisty. 

In the dream I am not passive or fatalistic - but struggling to cope with each new crisis. I guess that is pretty much how it must appear to observers.

March 2001
Post Reconstruction