This One Night, at Cancer Camp

I have a friend — an acquaintance who is the spouse of a friend — who is in a life -threatening cancer situation. Last night he wrote a post on Facebook  about the impossibility, in his situation, of planning for the future, and about his current state of living in the reality of the moment and trying to have fun.

When I woke up this morning, with that kernel of anxiety about the future that is my almost constant companion, I thought about living and laughing in face of death.  And I thought about this one night a Cancer Camp when we had a dance. We danced to pop music while wearing funny hats and vests and feathery boas from a trunk in the corner and it was a true celebration. but it was also surreal, because I could look around the the room — we all had cancer — and know that some of us might be dead soon. It might be me. but because we were all in the same boat, it seemed strangely okay.

“Cancer Camp” was a 10-day retreat/workshop experience that I had shortly after my first cancer diagnosis. We meditated three times daily, we drank veggie juices and had talks about nutrition, pain management and the neuroscience of affirmations. We also spent a day planning for our deaths — made lists of what we wanted to do before we died, and what we wanted our funerals to be like.

I think when the topic of cancer camp comes up now, it is often prompted by one of the tangible life-style changes that I continue to observe after my illness — the way I eat, or largely refrain from alcohol. The discussion tend to go down a path where I recount various dietary and lifestyle changes I made. Also, I tend to say something about how I got lucky, and I think it’s easy to conclude that I think that the relationship between those two things is entirely causal — but the reality is more complex.

My lifestyle changes were helpful — maybe even essential to my recovery. AND I was lucky, in terms of survival. Many of my friends from that time made similar changes, but their situations were different from mine, and their outcomes were different too. I have always been grateful that “cancer camp” was an experience that offered preparation for both outcomes. We lived with hope, and the idea that we could work toward that end, but also with the idea that survival wasn’t the only outcome, and shouldn’t be the only measure of success.

The days at cancer camp were purposefully full. The evenings were lighter — movies screenings, a musician, and one night — it might have been the night after our “dealing with death” day–we had a dance. We stacked ll the chairs from our daytime meetings in the corners, and someone pulled out  boxes of hats and boas and silly things to wear. The music was pop songs I can’t remember. We jumped and danced around with abandon. And I recall, for a moment, thinking —

“It’s okay if I to die.”

I was in Australia. In the mountains. Surrounded by other people who would probably die.

Retrospectively I’ve thought about how much my desires are affected by social context. It was easier, there in the mountains, to drink veggie juices and not eat meat or too much sugar because that’s what everyone else was doing — that’s no surprise. Just as it’s logical that it can be depressing to eat a vegetable plate surrounded by people ordering and offering you pizza. But I hadn’t considered — or understood — how social context affects bigger things too. It was easier to contemplate having a shorter and uncertain future around people who were facing the same. And it was sadder to think about dying around people who were all planning to live longer — to feel distant from conversations that centered on the future– achievements hoped for, plans. It can be hard to relate to people who have an entirely different perspective on time.

For a while, I didn’t think about planning ahead. About how I was going to make a living, and if I would be a success or failure. Though, I was putting great effort into simply healing, which had anxieties of its own–the other anxieties, the once that I had felt through my life, and the ones I wrestle with today, were gone. I was lucky to have some like-minded comrades for this part of my journey, as it is isolating to be the only one living on your own timeline.

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