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 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

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