The diagnosis of Cancer and living with cancer is associated with suffering. A compilation of narratives from different sources is at the later part of this blogpost.
However, the more important purpose of this post is to share the insights of Sri Aurobindo on Suffering. Please read and reflect on the same and share your experiences.
Included a poem on life and suffering(AUDIO)from the All India Radio (July 21, 2019)
Suffering- Sri Aurobindo
You said last time that suffering purifies. Can you explain in what way?
When suffering comes it forces one to separate himself from the instruments and recognise his true self and so he feels pure and light and this helps him to rise above the lower nature.
It need not make you separate yourself from suffering unless you have got the power to stand back from it; but this power is not inherent in suffering. Take the case of the unfortunate persons who are put into prison. They suffer but suffering does not purify them; on the contrary, it makes them worse. To my mind suffering is a sign of imperfection of nature. It is a stamp of imperfection on the individual and universal nature.
You have to learn from suffering: firstly, why it is there, and, secondly, how to overcome it.
But if you take delight in it and invite it like the Christian monks who used to get whipped and take pleasure in it — that I consider a deviation and a perversion.
Is it not true that when we suffer we turn to God?
Not necessarily. There are people who suffer and suffer and never turn to God.
Tagore says, “Suffering or joy, whatever you give, I put it on my head and accept with equal joy,”
Yes, yes. That is all right. That is like all things highly sentimental and not necessarily true.
Why should I protest when God sends me suffering?
I don’t protest. I only learn, I don’t fly away from it and shrink from it. You have to look upon it as upon everything else in the world — like sin and evil, for instance. But you have not to accept sin and evil.
But everything comes from God.
Christian mysticism derives its idea of rejoicing in suffering from intense Bhakti — devotion. Everything is seen to come from the beloved and welcomed
What does not come from God? Even evil and sin come from God. Why not accept them? If God drives you towards your neighbour’s wife why not accept it? They — sin and evil — have their place in the universe to fulfil and in evolution also.
But that is not the law of the human soul, the soul is not here for suffering.
The Gita speaks of the Asuric Tapas and says that people who invite suffering torture the elements in the body and torture “Me”, Krishna, who am seated in the body.
When you say everything comes from God, you have to accept it with some common sense. It is all right so long as you are in the Vedantic consciousness. Everything comes from God is another way of saying that the Infinite manifests itself in everything. But it is not necessary that the manifestation of the Infinite here should take the forms of suffering and evil.
EVENING TALKS WITH SRI AUROBINDO
RECORDED BY A B PURANI (25-06-1926)
‘LIVING WITH CANCER’………
A-Personal reactions to t he diagnosis of Cancer: (from Books)
‘BE AWARE OF THE GIFT OF TIME’
Cancer: The word immediately evokes thoughts of suffering, fear, and drama. It carries the negative imprint of all that our society has come to know about the disease-the stigmas, the misconceptions, and the assumptions that it’s death sentence. Sadly little of our basic understanding of cancer is positive. But what if we stopped viewing cancer as a war, as something to fight against.Page 5,(9)
“The purpose of my book,” Susan Sontag concluded in Illness as Metaphor, “ was to calm the imagination, not to incite it”. …. A surprisingly large number of people with cancer find themselves being shunned by relatives and friends and are the object of practices of decontamination by the members of their household, as if cancer, like TB, were an infectious disease.(1)
‘the very word “cancer” is said to kill some patients who would not have succumbed(so quickly) to the malignancy from which they suffer’(Karl Menninger,The Vital Balance)
In an essay titled a ‘A view from the Front Line’, Jencks described her experience with cancer as like being woken up midflight on a jumbo jet and then thrown out with a parachute into a foreign landscape without a map: There you are, a future patient, quietly progressing with other passengers toward a distant destination, when, astonishingly (Why me?), a large hole opens in the floor next to you. People in white coats appear, help you into a parachute and- no time to think- out you go.(p.329) (2)
‘The doctor was very gently and kind as he broke the news. “You have lymphoma, which is a form of cancer of the lymphatic system”. But from the instant he uttered the word cancer, I didn’t hear much ,more of what he was saying. His voice came to me though he were under water. My eyes glazed over and rested on the view from the clinic window. Outside, nothing has changed. The sun continued its journey, slowly setting behind the harbour; the skyskapers glowed in muted hues of orange and amber; and people went on their way to the laughter and joy of happy hour. Yet learning the reality of what was happening within me had instantaneously changed my whole world.’ ( page 44, 4)
“You have cancer.” These simple words come as a terrible shock. Life, as you know, changes in an instant and nothing is the same again. Panic and fear overwhelm you as you desperately pin your hopes on doctors and the medical treatment. (2)
‘ I am going to die.’ Was my very first thought when the doctor calmly announced my cancer diagnosis on a cold and dark day in December 2001. Simultaneously, I experienced a strange disorientation, time seemed to slow down, and the doctors words came and went as though they were emerging from a warped record. I felt a choking sensation in my throat as if all the air had been sucked out, and I could not breathe…… every individual who receives a cancer diagnosis knows what I am talking about; many people have recounted similar experiences. Irrespective of age, gender, socio-economic background and nationality, cancer comes as a shock. It punches a hole through your sense of self, your very identity, leaving you in a very fragile and vulnerable place. …….I felt as if the real ‘me’ had disappeared behind my hospital gown, the machines and medicines. Everyone’s attention was focussed on removing my diseased colon and the tumours therein as quickly and as efficiently as possible, which they accomplished. Fortunately, Nilima was by my side throughout the ordeal and various relatives, colleagues and friends came to visit and spend quality time with me. Their warmth and presence were a welcome reminder to me that I was still a real and complete person and not just a hospital number!……A painful and traumatic experience like cancer completely redefines normalcy, once you are diagnosed with such an illness, there is no going back to life as you have known it. If every aspect of life-physical, personal, social , professional – is shaken to the core, nothing can remain normal anymore!’(3)
‘ Cancer is not a concentration camp, but it shares the quality of annihilation: it negates the possibility of life outside and beyond itself; it subsumes all living. The daily life of a patient becomes so intensely preoccupied with his/her illness the world fades away. Every last morsel of energy is spent in tending to the disease.” (p.398)(2)
How to overcome became an obsession,” the journalist Max Lerner wrote of the lymphoma in his spleen. “ If it was to be a combat then I had to engage it with everything I had-knowledge and guile, ways covert as well as overt”. (p.398)(2)
“Cancer is a tremendous opportunity to have your face pressed against the glass of your mortality”. But what patients see through the glass is not a world outside cancer, but a world taken over by it-cancer reflected endlessly around them like a hall of mirrors” (p.398)(2)
“ That day I cried like a baby not because I feared what cancer would do but because I didn’t want the disease. I wanted my life to be normal, which it could not be”(4)
She was treated with bilateral mastectomy followed by nearly seven months of chemotherapy. “When I was finished with all that,” she recalled,” I felt as if I had crossed a river of tragedy.”(2)
“There was no choice”, she said, motioning almost unconsciously to the room where her children were playing. “My friends often ask me whether I felt as if my life was somehow made abnormal by my disease. I would tell them the same thing: for someone who is sick, this is their new normal”.
Some treated their illness reverentially. Some were bewildred, some too embittered to care. A mother from Boston in her mid fifties crcked raunchy jokes about her cancer. The day long drill of infusions and blood tests was exhausting. In the late evening, after all the tests, the women went their own ways. Bradfield went home and prayed. Another woman soused herself with martinis (p.421,(2).
Indeed as the fraction of those affected by cancer creeps inexorably in some nations from one in four to one in three to one in two, cancer will, indeed, be the new normal-an inevitability. The question then will not be if we will encounter this immortal illness in our lives, but when.(p.459)(2)
How life changes with Cancer and Treatment
CHEMOTHERAPY: My life became one long IV drip, a sickening routine: if I wasn’t in pain I was vomiting, and if I wasn’t vomiting, I was thinking about what I had, and if I wasn’t thinking about what I had, I was wondering when it was going to be over. That’s chemo for you………Chemo doesn’t just kill cancer-it kills healthy cells, too. It attacked my bone marrow, my muscle, my teeth, and the linings of my throat and my stomach, and left me open to all kinds of infections. My gums bled. I got sores in my mouth. And of course I lost my appetite, which was potentially serious problem. Without enough protein, I wouldn’t be able to rebuild tissue after chemo had eaten through my skin, my hair, and my fingernails….but chemo felt like a kind of living death. I would lie in bed half-asleep, and lose track of time, including whether it was day or night-and I didn’t like that. It was disorienting and made me eel as if things were slipping out of joint, getting away from me……. The chemo left me so foggy that my memory of that time id sketchy, but what I do know for sure is that at my sickest, I started to beat the thing…..By now I was so sick there were times I couldn’t talk. So sick I couldn’t eat, couldn’t watch TV, couldn’t read my mail, could not even speak to my mother on the phone. One afternoon she called me from work. I whispered, ”Mom, I’m going to have to talk to you another time”. Pages 131-157)(8)
Impact on Marriage: During that year our marriage ended, seventeen years after it had begun. For a long time our lives had been diverging. The cancer had brought us closer but now it was gone. Brushing so near death makes a person think about how she wants to spend what is left of life. Nancy had her reasons for deciding it was not with me.(6)
NEW PURPOSE: I had a new sense of purpose, and it had nothing to do my recognition and exploits on a bike. Some people won’t understand this, but I no longer felt it was my role in life to be a cyclist. Maybe my role was to be a cancer survivor. My strongest connections and feelings with people who are fighting cancer and asking the same question I was: “Am I going to die?”(8)
AGEING and DEATH:‘Using the science of ageing to improve the end of life represents a challenge perhaps the greatest to face medical science…..But when the end arrives, each of us –alone- will need to come to terms with our mortality. All the more reason then to focus on living-on making the most of the time of our lives, because no magic elixir will serve us’ (11) ( full quote in Part B)
1. Sontag, S.(1990) Illness as a Metaphor and AIDS and its metaphors, Picador, New York. Philosophical discussion of stigmatising illnesses through history. Very thought provoking book.
2. Mukhaerjee, S.(2011) The Emperor of All Maladies: a biography of Cancer. Fourth estate, London. Brilliant book. Provides 2500 and more years of history of cancer. The narratives, stories, the way research on Cancer has progressed has been presented in the lost engaging manner. I wish I had read it earlier. Must read by everyone. Up to date to 2010.
3. Vijay Bhat and Nilima Bhat(2013)My Cancer is Me- the journey from illness to wholeness, Hay House, New Delhi. Personal journey with the diagnosis of cancer and how it changed their lives. Very engagingly written., Very good resource for alternative therapies. Has many useful linkages , like their website: Sampurnah which has many resources including a set of downloadable audios on cancer meditations. Very much rooted to the Indian situation, and for this reason, most relevant to Indian patients and their families.
4. Singh, Y.(2013) The Test of My Life- from cricket to cancer and back, Random House, Noida. A good account of autobiography of cricketing life and the encounter with cancer. Specially relevant to understand the difficulties of seeking treatment, the stigma and the likely dangers of going for not well established therapies. Well written and this will be specially liked by the cricket lovers!!
5. Moorjani, A.(2013) Dying to be Me- my journey from cancer, to near death, to true healing, Hay House, New Delhi. Very unique personal journey of developing advanced cancer, experiencing near death experience and full recovery to live a new life and share the journey with others. Emphasis on holistic health.
6. Johnson,G.(2013) The Cancer Chronicles-unlocking medicine’s deepest mystery, Bodely Head, London. This is similar to The Emperor of All Maladies(2 above) but much less detailed and more suitable to non-medical readers. It combines the zoological origins and human cancers. The personal journey of wife and a friend bring our the poignancy of cancer. Updated to 2013.
7. Isaacson,W. (2011) Steve Jobs, Little Brown, London. The chapter of return of cancer, brings the many turmoil’s of the person with cancer- non acceptance of disease, stigma, impact on professional life, seeking alternative treatments, the need for privacy, the tragedy of delayed treatment occurring to one of the brilliant person, who has changed the way we listen to music(IMusic), the we communicate(IPHONE) and access knowledge(IPAD) Felt sad thinking what other gifts to humanity he could have given to humanity if he had accepted medical care early in the illness.
8. Armstrong,L.(2000) It’s not about the bike-my journey back to life, Yellow Jersey, London. Personal journey of famous and nor not so famous( because of drug doping as a cyclist) of encounter with very advanced cancer and recovery. The chapters 5, ‘conversations with cancer’ and Chapter 6, ‘chemo’ are most useful to persons with a diagnosis of cancer.vivid descriptions of feelings and the challenges of taking modern anti-cancer drugs. This also brings home the importance of support from family and friends, and what they can do in these situations. Must read.
9. Canfield, J., Hansen,M.V., Tabatsky,D.(2010) Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Cancer Book, Westland, Chennai. This is very useful resource book, positive way, presenting the lives of persons diagnosed with cancer, in 101 stories. The long,40 pages, personal journey of Elizabeth is very well written and present the complex challenges a person diagnosed with cancer faces in the American settings. Some of the narratives may look alien to Indian readers, especially the aggressive focus on personal rights.
10. Nayak, U.(2011) Enduring cancer???Stories of hope, Hyderabad. One of the few Indian books on people living with a diagnosis of Cancer. This book by a cancer surgeon portrays a first-person account of people who came to terms with their cancer. These true stories are narratives of their hopes and fears, their understanding of the disease and how it changed their lives and the lives of those around them. This book is a tribute to their fortitude and survival skills. These are stories of hope, of enduring a disease with dignity and courage. These are stories of life beyond cancer..
11. Kirkwood,T. (2010) Why can’t we live forever, Scientific American,42-49, September 2010. This is good review of ageing literature and how to look both ageing and death. Informative about ageing research and thought provoking on mortality of humanbeings.
12. Sharma, M.M.( 2012) 52 simple ways to prevent, control, and turn off Cancer, S.Chand, New Delhi. Beginning with a statement, ‘From the diagnosis to death it is misery for the patient and the family. Modern understanding and methods of cancer control are woefully inadequate”. Authors presents his view and the importance of nutritional healing of cancers. Focus is specific to nutrition and the level of information is varied in importance and quality.