Imagine if today was the day you discovered you have cancer.
What would you do? What would you change? How would this discovery shift your priorities?
Initially, you’d probably go into shock. You’d get upset or angry. You’d spend a couple of days sailing the adrenalin and the cortisol that accompanies something frightening. Everything would seem brighter. Clearer. You’d finally understand what compels people to return to extreme sports. It’s this afterglow that accompanies anything truly terrifying.
You’d land about a week later and have to deal with reality. You’ve got cancer. It might kill you. What now?
Most people spend some time thinking about how they got cancer. There’s nothing like a threat to your life to make you reassess the way you live it. If you’re one of the few remaining smokers this is probably the point at which you throw away your cigarettes. If you’re a social drinker you might be shocked by your doctor’s advice that alcohol is just as bad for you as cigarettes. You might decide to stop drinking. Or you might go out and buy a carton of cigarettes and a carton of your favourite grog and get stuck right into it. What the hell. You’ve got cancer anyway.
You might finally realise that being a healthy weight is important. Obesity is a major cause of cancer and the long road to gradual, healthy weight loss is nothing compared to the long road of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, assuming you’ve caught your cancer early enough to still have any of those options available to you. It’s possible you’ll achieve a whole new perspective on what you put in your mouth, and how much you eat. What isn’t nutrition is garbage that your body has to process and right now you want your body to be killing cancer.
Or you might just eat out the biscuit aisle and stock up on junk food. What the hell. You’ve got cancer anyway.
If you found out you had cancer you might become a bit obsessed with labels and getting rid of anything toxic from your life. Your bathroom cabinet could suddenly become a clean, shiny, thing of beauty as you consign anything with ‘parfum’ or ‘sodium laurel sulphate’ to the bin. Lipstick? Don’t need the lead right now. Face cream? Does my skin really need those 23 polysyllabic ingredients? Look good or stay alive? Who says you can’t do both? Out goes the hair dye, the nail polish, the poisonous body lotion along with a bucket full of chemical that you use to ‘clean’ you home. In comes the organic rose hip oil, the toxin free soap and the bicarb of soda.
Or you might just empty the whole lot into the bath and roll about in it. What the hell. You know the rest.
When you discover you have cancer your life is supposed to flash before your eyes. It seems to me that is doesn’t so much flash as trickle. You’ll almost certainly find yourself doing an audit on the whole of your life so far and sorting it into things you’re proud of, things you could have done better, unfinished business and things you hope nobody ever knows about. You might decide to ring people and say ‘thank you’ or ‘fuck you’ or ‘I just needed to say…’ You might look around you and decide that your life is really wonderful and you are deeply grateful for all the people in it, or you might decide that some changes are needed. It’s a rare person that changes nothing. After all, this is cancer and now you are face to face with the inevitability of your own impending death. If this is all there is, how do you feel about that?
You might decide it’s time to figure out what your true purpose is in life, if you haven’t done that already. You might think about your impact on the planet, become active in a cause you care about, donate generously to a charity that matters to you or rewrite your will to include a legacy. Or you might decide not to bother with the recycling. You might start saying ‘yes’ to the plastic bags at the supermarket and trade in your economical car for something big and grunty. You just don’t know what you’ll do when you get a cancer diagnosis.
You’ll find doctors, research your illness, figure out your odds and hit the internet for the complex porridge of research, superstition and scare mongering. You’ll learn a lot about cancer very quickly. Your knowledge will help you to make decisions about what kind of treatment you’re going to have, or not have. It will help you to understand what kind of things you can do to support your treatment, improve your odds and maybe, just maybe, beat cancer.
In the course of your research you’ll discover that we know a lot more about cancer than we have at any time in human history. Humans do this with everything. We keep asking and searching and researching and our body of knowledge grows exponentially. What your research or your doctor might tell you is that a lot of what we used to think about cancer has now been revised. We used to think that cancer was caused by a single, deformed cell that lodged somewhere in the body, tricked the body into giving it a blood supply and then grew into a tumour. Most of that is still considered correct, but what we now know is that everyone has cancer cells circulating their bodies. Scientists have used man-made and natural disasters to do research that proves that all of us (even you) have cancer cells inside us all of the time.
There’s a war going on inside your body. The cancer cells are trying to trick the healthy cells into accepting them as normal. The healthy cells are recognising that the cancer cells don’t belong and they’re killing them off, or just ignoring them and waiting for them to die. One of the exciting areas of research for fighting cancer involves studying a process called angiogenesis. It’s the process that a cancer cell uses to build the blood supply that allows it to grow. Here’s an excellent TED talk on this subject;
You can probably see where I’m headed with this.
We all have cancer.
You have cancer.
It seems to me that it’s a good idea to live that way. Make the decisions now that you would make if you received a cancer diagnosis. Don’t wait for the tumours to form. Decide to change the things you can to improve your survival odds and your quality of life. Make the changes you need to make to have the life you want to live. End the destructive relationship. Find employment that plays to your strengths and provides you with opportunities to learn. Break out the good silverware. Don’t get caught up in building wealth when what really matters is living life. Play. Laugh. Spend more time enjoying relationships and less time accumulating stuff. Love your body and treat it like the most valuable thing you have.
Because it is.
Live like you have cancer.
Because you do.