What martial arts is teaching me about fearing death (Guest post)

death head, art journal page, September 2005

I was diagnosed with breast cancer this summer, and had a double mastectomy in September. Now my doctors are recommending chemo and radiation to reduce the chances of my cancer coming back. If this is a war, I’d better win, right? So I’m turning to my martial arts training for guidance on fighting. And – surprisingly – making peace with death.

One of the reasons that cancer scares us is because it can kill us. But when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I wasn’t worried about dying. I read that the overall survival rate from breast cancer was good. And I was going to be one of the survivors, obviously.

Then one of the lymph nodes removed during my double mastectomy tested positive for cancer. Funny how something so simple can change everything.

Before I write anything else, let me say that my odds of surviving five years are still quite good. I have Stage 2 breast cancer. I haven’t been handed an automatic death sentence. My cancer is curable. But as I’ve tried to wrap my mind around the implications of all of the characteristics of my particular disease (lobular, invasive, pre-menopausal, hormone sensitive, five tumours – the largest 4 cm, one positive lymph node), and I’m being asked to make decisions about the next steps in my treatment, I suddenly feel like a gambler playing Russian roulette with my own life. What are my odds if I do this treatment? What if I don’t do this one? And do the survival numbers even mean anything, anyhow?

And… lately I’ve been thinking about the possibility of dying from cancer.

Some people would say that’s a bad thing. Don’t think about it, and it won’t happen. Don’t “go gentle into that good night.” Be a warrior. Be a survivor. Beat cancer. Whip its ass.

Thing is, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life – however long that may be – fighting. Call me crazy, but I want to actually live my life. I want to love, and laugh, and play, and make things. Do good things. Make a difference. And I’m not sure I can do any of that if I’m in constant battle mode.

I met with my radiation oncologist this week, and was disheartened to learn that the cancer found in my lymph node, while small, had been penetrating the lymph node wall. Which might mean that the cancer was spreading beyond the node before it was removed, and that the surgeon left cancer cells behind.

I hadn’t considered that. As far as I was concerned, when they cut off my right breast and took out that positive lymph node, they got rid of all my cancer. Chemo was going to be a formality for me – an insurance policy that might even be kind of optional.

Now I suddenly feel like I may have a time bomb ticking inside my body. Can the bomb be disabled? Will it go off someday? When? Am I going to have to spend the rest of my life worrying about something that may not even happen? If I choose not to have a treatment now, because it promises to only marginally improve my odds of dying from breast cancer, but later end up getting breast cancer after all, will I kick myself for not having done everything I could do?

I don’t know about you, but I can’t live like that. I’m a worrywart. A ruminator. Throwing cancer fear into my head and letting it steep for the next thirty years would be a horrorshow.

“Today is a good day to die.”
~ Worf, Star Trek: The Next Generation

My aikido Sensei talks a lot during our classes about the Japanese samurai tradition, and one thing he’s mentioned over and over again is that the samurai warriors were trained to live as though they were already dead. That made them fearless in battle, because they had nothing to lose. Within the context of recreational 21st-century martial arts training, being “already dead” means being unafraid to face your attacker, and “entering” the attack, or proactively moving forward to meet your attacker’s strike. (I talked about this in my blog post about how martial arts taught me to fight cancer.)

Lately I’ve taken Sensei’s words even further, and have been meditating on the idea that I’m truly already dead. I’m finding there are some real lessons there about not fearing death.

Let me start by sharing that I’ve lived extended periods of my life thinking about death. My brother killed himself 18 years ago, and in the aftermath of his suicide I was plunged into a suicidal depression myself. I spent the next 10 years dancing with depression and suicidal thoughts, and while it’s been many years since I’ve been in that psychological pit, it’s left me with a lasting sense that death is not all negative. Death can be a comfort – a release.

In the days leading up to my double mastectomy, I started thinking about death again. I proactively got all my financial affairs in order, recognizing that there was a very small possibility that something might go wrong during my surgery, and I might die on the operating table. I got my last will and testament witnessed by close friends. I made some notes for my family about my wishes for my body, and the kind of memorial service I’d like to have. I looked around my apartment at all my unfinished projects, panicked at thought of trying to wrap everything up, then realized that it would be somebody else’s problem once I was gone.

My father died of cancer two years ago, and it was a hard death. He was very sick, he suffered for a very long time, and his dying was ugly and awful to watch. I’m not deluding myself into thinking that death is always easy.

On the other hand, I’m adamant that I don’t want to tie up my physical and emotional energy into the need for a cure. I will not “lose” if I die from cancer. I won’t lose if I die in two years rather than 20. I will lose if those 20 years are bitter and fearful. If my quality of life is diminished by worry and despair.

I’ve probably got this whole samurai thing wrong, but here’s what I’m thinking: Screw fighting cancer. I’m already dead. Sometime, somewhere, somehow in the future, I’m gone. I don’t know when it will be, or how it will be. But here’s what I want: to live as fully as I can today, to do my best, and not waste my time on things I can’t change.

Do not look upon this world with fear and loathing. Bravely face whatever the gods offer.
~ Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido

 

Update: After I drafted this blog post, Sam posted this link on Facebook. Great post on the same theme (“I’ve been diagnosed with life and so have you”); I wish I’d been able to say it that eloquently.

___

You may also be interested in these blog posts by Michelle about her breast cancer experience:

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Illustration: Death head, art journal page, wax crayon and ink on paper, September 2005

About Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

I'm a writer, artist and maker who creates adult coloring pages and pretty clothes.

11 thoughts on “What martial arts is teaching me about fearing death (Guest post)

  1. WOW Michelle!! AMAZING Post! I LOVE IT! I am praying for you and your family. My condolences on your brother and father dying. I’ve had the same problems with depression and suicidal tendencies and even cancer..it ALL GOES TOGETHER! YOU ARE ON THE RIGHT PATH! DON’T submit to death, YOU ARE HERE FOR A PURPOSE! You’ve inspired me! Thanks so much Michelle! (I am turning to kickboxing, yoga, tai chi, meditation, weight lifting, running, and prayer to name a few. THE LORD HEALED ME AND HE WILL HEAL YOU! Don’t give in!! You’re almost there!

    Like

  2. […] Source: What martial arts is teaching me about fearing death (Guest post) […]

    Like

  3. natalieh says:

    Thank you for sharing so frankly about your journey. It’s weird how our culture sometimes frames cancer as a battle. It’s definitely a journey but battle? Fight?
    I sometimes quip that “you haven’t lived until you think about death all the time”. It reminds me that death waits for us all, it’s how we get there that matters.
    Please do keep sharing as long as you enjoy sharing your journey here on the blog.
    Thank you 🙂

    Like

  4. hailhop22 says:

    You are amazing and inspirational. Thank you for sharing. We can all learn from you, to be positive and accepting is more powerful than the “good fight”. Thank you.

    Like

  5. Karen says:

    Thank you, Michelle, for your incredible words of wisdom! I am currently facing a high possibility of thyroid cancer. Sometimes I don’t think about it much and live life as though it isn’t a possibility, but not necessarily a healthy proactive life, and at other times I fret over it and the fact that I am not living how I want and need to be. Your words are inspiring. I fear death and haven’t thought a lot about it during this time. But I have thought about the quality of my life and about how I want to live it to its fullest, something I don’t feel I’m doing. You have given me some serious food for thought and for that I am grateful. Thanks! One day I will post my journey here.

    Like

    • Michelle Lynne Goodfellow says:

      Thanks Karen for your feedback. I’m sorry to hear about your own situation. It’s a scary place to be in, not knowing. I’m glad I can help you see different approaches to your journey. I look forward to hearing more about your story.

      Like

  6. singleunschoolingjourney says:

    Thank you, Michelle, for your incredible words of wisdom! I am currently facing a high possibility of thyroid cancer. Sometimes I don’t think about it much and live life as though it isn’t a possibility, but not necessarily a healthy proactive life, and at other times I fret over it and the fact that I am not living how I want and need to be. Your words are inspiring. I fear death and haven’t thought a lot about it during this time. But I have thought about the quality of my life and about how I want to live it to its fullest, something I don’t feel I’m doing. You have given me some serious food for thought and for that I am grateful. Thanks! One day I will post my journey here.

    Like

  7. This is by far the most powerful words i read today. I believe the honesty of it and the way you describe the situation makes it deeper .I applaude you for your courage and strenght. May you be blessed.thank you for sharing something so personal. With Love Shelly.

    Like

  8. Kai says:

    Hi Michelle, I’ve been reading all your posts this evening, and actually just replied to one which was a few months old – “What martial arts taught me about fighting breast cancer”. But for some reason missed this most recent one until now, where things have obviously moved on a lot for you – apologies for that.

    I continue to think you’re awesome and inspirational – even more so reading this new post. We’re ALL dying, as you (and also Natalieh) say – “Sometime, somewhere, somehow in the future, I’m gone. I don’t know when it will be, or how it will be”. But too many of us deny it and waste time until it hits home. You’re not – you are living intensely in the moment now, and determined to make the most of it all.

    I know you’re very scared, and with good reason. But remember your previous posts, where you maintained your centre in the face of a horrible diagnosis and surgery, and were told, “You’re the happiest cancer patient I’ve ever seen”. Your psychotherapist friend is a professional, and she was amazed by your remarkable optimism and proactive attitude, which you know is linked to your aikido. You still have that choice and that power to enter into the attack, and you can do this. You’re an aikidoka through and through, and you also have the gift of truly inspiring people through your brave and vulnerable writing about your journey – look at Karen’s heartfelt comments above (and remember that your life journey is what the “do” in aikido ultimately means).

    O Sensei said, “I am ready for whatever arises; nothing fazes me. I am free of any attachment to the matter of life and death. I leave everything up to the divine. Training is not limited to the time you are holding a sword; in all of your daily actions you must transcend the realm of life and death, and entrust yourself completely to the divine”.

    Huge aiki love and hugs to you, every step of the way X

    Like

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s