Updated: Apr 8
First of three posts about the possibilities for living with wellbeing on the cancer journey
On a gray afternoon in February, the doctor pokes a nitrile-gloved finger into the back of my mouth and finds a hard spot on my right tonsil. He tells me the odds are 1 in 10 it’s a tumor. He smiles to reassure me. Good odds.
The hospital’s MRI ratchets, tuts, and spins, and when it stops my number comes up: it’s a tumor.
The doctor biopsies my tonsil. He’s not smiling. Neither am I. The odds are now 1 in 3 the tumor is malignant.
We’ll have results on Tuesday. Have a nice weekend.
Improbably, I do.
In the afternoon he calls.
“I’ve got good news and bad news.”
Is this a joke?
“You’ve got throat cancer.”
I hope that’s not the good news.
“It’s the viral kind, over 90% curable.”
Radiation begins in three weeks.
Cancer! Cancer! Cancer! The word rings in my ears like the shriek of the temperamental smoke alarm over my office door.
Cancer! Cancer! Cancer! I put down the phone and in one long, sinking exhale I watch darkness flooding the well-tended garden of my life.
My comfortable home and happy marriage wither into black curls like a photograph in a fire, followed by images of my children, my work, everything I love about life, including my hopes for the future, all devoured by an all-consuming darkness.
Blood is pounding in my temples like it’s trying to escape. I scan my cluttered office for refuge, someplace to go. I look down at my body. Recent news notwithstanding, I’ve been feeling pretty good of late. My gut is mostly gone, my injured lower back is mending, and I’ve resumed my twice-weekly hikes in a local grove of redwoods. It doesn’t look or feel like a body that has cancer; and as I look deeper, there’s an incongruous feeling that some part of me is still okay.
How can I have so much health and happiness while in a faraway corner of my body, legions of rogue cells are gathering to hijack my life? The paradox stops my train of thought; I don’t know what to make of it.
I recall a similar moment about a year earlier: I was attending a professional retreat for coaches. The presenter, a well-respected coach and teacher of many years’ experience, was asked what he did when he reached an impasse with a client and didn’t know what to say or do next. He reflected a moment. “Nothing,” he replied. “I rest in the comfort of not knowing, until it occurs to me what to do next.”
In the comfort of not knowing? I was thunderstruck. Raised in a family where success and recognition depended on being right and always having a ready answer, not having an answer or getting it wrong was seen as a failure of intelligence, if not character.
That there was some value, never mind comfort, to be found in not having an answer was unfathomable to me. Something in his words, however, struck a chord, and I’d been sitting with them ever since, turning them this way and that like a Rubik’s cube.
15 minutes later
I’m standing at my office window, gazing into the growing darkness outside. My imagination is rampaging—chemo, surgery and feeding tubes, perhaps disfigurement and the permanent loss of my voice. I feel lost, but inside there’s still the faint voice whispering that I’m okay.
“I’ve got your back”, the voice says.
I let go.
Something catches my fall–a space, still and empty. Peaceful, protected, safe. I see my wife Kathy; there’s a gentle arch of silver-grey light reaching from me to her. I realize in that moment that my one great fear in life is anything that could harm the connection with my partner and best friend of twenty-seven years.
Then, contained in the sky above her, I notice a distant swirling thunderhead. The next instant, I understand that cancer can’t hurt or damage what connects us.
A sudden thought splits this comforting reverie: What if I die? What if my cancer is more serious, metastatic, terminal? Can it destroy this feeling and connection I have with my partner, and our children, who together are the largest part of my reason for living?
I don’t know.
I see myself shedding, sloughing skin and bone. In a shower of dust, my body is gone–but the connection is untouched, perfect, and reaches toward the distant horizon. In that instant, every atom of my being knows with absolute certainty that whatever our connection is, it's eternal.
A great weight falls away.
I gather myself together and walk down the stairs to Kathy’s office. I’m floating on a cloud of relief, gratitude, joy, and fear. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I’m still just me, ordinary me, a very mortal George. The world is no different; nothing has changed. And yet, everything has changed.
Kathy is working at her desk in the sunlit room off the garden. She turns, searches my face for the news we’ve both been waiting for. Our eyes meet and I open my mouth to speak, but instead, I burst into tears.
64Her face drops like she has just glimpsed some dark messenger at the threshold. In an instant, it dawns on me that she misunderstands the source of my tears. I reach out, gather her into my arms.
“No, no, no!” I say, smiling through my tears. “It’s good news!”
If you know of someone on the cancer journey who might benefit from learning more about their innate wellbeing and health, 5 other coaches and I, all on the cancer journey, have a support program for you to consider-- The Well of Wellbeing. www.wellofwellbeing.org