Thursday, August 07, 2014
August 7, 2014 — Lessons from Valerie
Now, her days are filled with thoughts of something decidedly not funny: lung cancer, metastasized to the meninges, the membrane surrounding the brain. She’s receiving experimental treatments, hoping for the best and trying to get the most out of every day.
She never smoked. Although many people hear the words “lung cancer” and say to themselves, “Oh, another smoker,” that’s certainly not true of every lung-cancer patient. In Valerie’s case, it’s probably in her genes. Her mother, also a non-smoker, succumbed to the same disease.
A recent article in the AARP Magazine describes Valerie’s active way of engaging the disease. Here are a few things that have worked for her:
Visualization didn’t do much for me when I was receiving cancer treatment, but I know it’s a technique many survivors swear by. What I find especially healthy about Valerie’s approach is that she doesn’t treat the cancer cells like invaders, like some bacteria. She’s fully aware that her cancer cells are part of her own body. They’ve just gone rogue. If she’s able, by focused thinking, to influence the behavior of those cells, so much the better.
Note that she doesn’t employ the familiar military metaphor here. She’s not “battling” cancer. She’s accepting it as part of her own body, a malfunction in her genes. She’s trying to reason with it. Whether or not her visualization exercises are having any real effect, who’s to say? We do know the mind-body barrier is somewhat porous, though — so, why not?
Note the realism in Valerie’s remarks. I’m sure she hasn’t stopped hoping for a miracle, but she’s not planning on one. There a real centeredness about that approach: living, as fully and intentionally as possible, in the now. Humor helps ground us, moving our thoughts away from future dread and back into the present.
As Valerie’s former Mary Tyler Moore Show co-star, Betty White, says of her: “She’s kept her sense of humor and balance. My beloved husband Allen Ludden [who died from stomach cancer in 1981] had that same attitude, and I swear it added a year we wouldn’t have had.”
That calls to mind the line from Proverbs 31:25, the description of the “capable wife,” who’s so much more than merely an appendage to her husband, a wise and strong woman:
“Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.”
Some people, dealing with a discouraging cancer prognosis, would focus only on that, but Valerie explains how she’s focusing on the goodness she’s enjoyed. She’s determined “not to be a pig about life.”
According to the article, Valerie has accomplished all this without relying on resources of faith (at least, not faith in the conventional sense). She’s not a religious believer, but has pursued self-help programs from the human-potential movement.
Visualization, humor, gratitude: these are resources anyone can tap into. Of course, from my perspective, I’d say faith takes us far beyond any strength we can summon up from within ourselves, or by relying on loved ones. There’s no reason, though, to belittle resources such as these, which are formidable.
We can be grateful to Valerie for being such a good teacher, and sharing her inner life so freely.