Blackberries & prescribed burning
This is written for G, who starts chemo tomorrow.
I’d also like to dedicate it to all who deal with fire: emergency services operators, and both professional and volunteer fire-fighters.
Let’s talk about how important language and allegory were to me in navigating my experience of cancer, treatment, and convalescence.
My goal was to communicate publicly about this in a way that models good boundaries and encourages conversations and raises awareness. So apart from my own treatment goals, those goals were a major driver for me and continue to be my more holistic goals for this experience.
This was important to me peofessionally as a trainer and a communicator.
On a very personal level as well as a professional level, I have a collaborative approach to life. Engaging with active and compassionate curiosity is always one of my goals.
I honestly felt, in the aftermath of the diagnosis, as I walked away from the appointment, that I needed to ensure that I used my skills to create a legacy of sorts.
I don’t think we have good models for how to talk to other people about being sick, chronic illness, or death. Culturally, our models in Australians of UK heritage remain aligned with the idea of stiff upper lips and not talking about unpleasant things. It’s not healthy, and I think we can do better. So I could see an opportunity and an obligation to walk my talk.
I don’t want to frame this experience in any kind of warfare terminology (a battle, a fight, winning, etc), nor do I accept warrior or survivor as appropriate titles/descriptors.
Cancer terminology (blackberries have thorns)
- The trouble with medicine’s metaphors
- Battle metaphors for breast cancer
- How Calling Cancer a ‘Fight’ or ‘Battle’ Can Harm Patients
- Let’s stop fighting cancer.
- Cancer lingo: How one person’s thoughtful metaphor can be another’s cliché
- Why you shouldn’t say someone lost their battle with cancer
- How not to say the wrong thing
Language, frameworks, and terminology (prickly blackberries)
With previous experience of a number of Beloveds dying from cancer, I already had some very firm ideas about linguistic frameworks.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, it was very in my face how cancer was regularly talked about in terms of warfare, battles, fights. With any oppositional framework, you automatically have a winner and a loser.
Tumours are vilified, and denounced as evil.
That doesn’t align with how I try to live my life. It is my honest belief that collaboration and cooperation need to be fundamentals in how you interact with the world.
I’m theologically and philosophically opposed to black and white thinking, to absolutes like good and evil. I couldn’t see how vilifying my tumours was going to support my mental health.
The other thing I noticed was how people would talk about chemotherapy and radiotherapy in terms of death, killing, and poison. How does one face such intense treatment if you consider it poison?
Choosing my language became part of choosing my outlook, and ultimately, supported my mental health.
And don’t even start me on all the ridiculous nicknames and slang for breasts! People started to address my breasts as separate entities which I have never done, and it was quite confronting. When I was particularly vulnerable, it made me upset and angry. There was so much focus on my breasts instead of on my cancer or on me.
Overall, I found I preferred to use the term fluidity instead of saying uncertainty.
Linguistic frameworks became a major coping strategy for me.
My younger sibling simply emphasised that we could only take it one step at a time. I like planning, it makes me feel in control. I had to release that or else I was just going to overthink everything. In other words, I think that is part of the reason language became so important to me through this experience.
Language and linguistic frameworks were part of my ability to control my situation.
Overall, the way I talk about my experience is still important to me. I still get very terse now when other people attempt to reframe my experience using words they are comfortable with as opposed to the language I am using.
Hot tip: when speaking to someone who has cancer, listen actively to the language they use and then mirror it.
At the risk of sounding brutal – when you are the person with cancer, your experience is what needs to be centred and prioritised. It’s your story.
If people find that hard to deal with, they need to seek support from their support network. You are central – support comes in, and those around you need to learn to dump out.
I love blackberries.
No seriously, they are probably my favorite berry. They look like jewels, they are plump and sweet, and they have this extraordinarily rich stain.
Having said that, they have massive fuck off thorns and they are also aggressive.
Blackberries are a huge problem in Australia.
I started to think of my cells as blackberries, and how cell growth is important to life. Cancer is just cells doing what cells do, but a little too enthusiastically.
So much enthusiasm.
So just like my live of blackberries, I love the dynamic nature of cell growth and free radicals and all that stuff.
Just like I love my blackberries from the supermarket or from the grocer or the road side stall.
But out of control blackberries are a major issue in my country, just like cancer was a major issue for my body.
Blackberries are treated with herbicides and sometimes, prescribed burning is used to gain access for further treatment.
So it helped a lot to think of my cancers just as overly enthusiastic and misguided.
Just like lots of plants that I love that can become out of control and smother other growth, destroy forests, and even pull down buildings.
Blackberries, Morning Glory, Ivy, and Bamboo, for example.
If you think of others, drop them in the comment section!
Blackberries and thorns
I really struggled with people constantly referring to chemo as poison. It was confronting and unhelpful. Even trying to work with the herbicide idea concerning the treatment of blackberry infestations wasn’t working for me.
The idea of my body as a forest, as a wild sacred space, has always been a powerful one for me.
I had already been thinking of the cancer experience, my bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction in terms of a Phoenix and the rebirth through the trial of fire.
In Australia, fire is used a lot to control both fires and undergrowth.
“I cannot regard it as a poison, because the reality is, I would die, most likely within years, without it.
So I am starting to look at it like a Fire Remedy; there is destruction, and death, and pain, and fear, but with careful management and good strategies and support, you can rebuild, and the forest of your self reseeds and blooms again (hopefully without cancer this time).”
This was from my journals in my third round of chemo.
It took me that long to come to a mental framework that sat well with me.
By that stage, I was really very sick.
Chemo as fire therapy
Being able to frame chemo as fire therapy really helped.
It helped because I was meditating on the idea of the Phoenix, rising, renewed, from the ashes and devestation of it’s former self.
Blackberries – I love blackberries in a punnet, and I love bamboo for all it’s usefulness. However, I’ve also had to clear bamboo in a friends garden, and I know how hard it was.
I know about prescribed burning, and although it can be devastating at the time, it helps prevent events like Black Saturday and the Black Summer of 2019-2020.
Focusing on the idea of chemo as fire therapy and accepting the period of devestation (ironically, I was undergoing chemo through bushfire season) really helped me escape a feeling of helplessness.
Considering chemo as that kind of massive and prolonged prescribed burning to prevent out of control devastation and destruction helped make it more bearable.
I sat in the early morning and late afternoon sun and meditated upon the sun as a massive star, blazing, capable of inducing heatwaves and droughts, but also necessary for life, light, and growth. Sunlight is a source of vitamin D and causes sunburn and skin cancer. It is the subject of both painters and poets.
I visualized my life and my body as a massive old-growth forest, full of lyre birds, ferns, and all manner of flaura and fauna.
I considered how frightening and destructive prescribed burning still is to that ecosystem, how the lives of animals and insects and birds and plants and trees would be lost, even with the most diligent of management and the most considered of plans. My wellness team and my Beloveds were like multiple strike teams.
And I was the forest, enduring the flames under the sun, waiting for the rains to come.
I still haven’t worked out the best word for the chemotherapy experience; suffering doesn’t do it for me, for obvious reasons. Endurance? Persistence? I have so many issues with the word surrender because again, it aligns with warfare terminology and constructions of domination.
If anyone has any insights, please share them!
Framing my chemo as fire therapy shifted the narrative for me, and helped me get through it mentally.
My sustaining strategies were gratitude, meditation, and prayer.
I can never fully express my gratitude to my Beloveds, especially my sibling who was my companion advocate, and my housemate who was essentially my carer. I regard myself exceptionally fortunate in terms of the quality of the people I have in my life.
“Thankfulness is the quickest path to joy.”
The art of Gary Purchase has beautifully captured for me the experience of chemo, the aftermath, and the vision of life after cancer.
These three paintings just resonate on a deep and powerful level for me, the images live in my head, and I often reflect on them. I intend to purchase prints of them for my birthday this year.
Gratitude practice blog articles
- Ask for help – then practice gratiude
- Gratitude links roundup
- Gratitude Practice 12 of 12
- Gratitude Practice 11 of 12
- Gratitude Practice 10 of 12
- Gratitude Practice 9 of 12
- Gratitude Practice 8 of 12
- Gratitude Practice 7 of 12
- Gratitude Practice 6 of 12
- Gratitude Practice 5 of 12
- Gratitude Practice 4 of 12
- Gratitude Practice 3 of 12
- Gratitude Practice 2 of 12
- Gratitude Practice 1 of 12
- Gratitude practice 85 days of chemotherapy.
Related blog posts: Cancer
- We are the Ancestors
- Act III
- Tips and tricks ~ Cancer Edition: Pre-Surgery
- Sunday 24th October 2021: Cancer Journal 17 ~ Chemo Edition
- Counting the Days
- Sunday 03rd October 2021: Cancer Journal 16 ~ Chemo Edition
- Milestones along the way
- Thursday 09th September 2021: Cancer Journal 15 ~ Chemo Edition
- Fuck Cancer
- Friday 13th August 2021: Cancer Journal 14 ~ Chemo Edition
- Haunted Temple, Sacred Vessel
- Friday 06th August 2021 (Cancer Journal 13)
- Friday 23rd July 2021 (Cancer Journal 12)
- The hospital week: first week post-surgery
- Wednesday 14th July 2021 (Cancer Journal 11)
- Sunday 11th July 2021 (Cancer Journal 10)
- Monday 05th July 2022 (Cancer Journal 9)
- Monday 21st June 2021 – Surgery Date (Cancer Journal 8)
- Plaster Cast
- Thursday 03rd June 2021 – the worst meltdown
- Sunday 30th May 2021: Cancer – telling your colleagues
- Friday 28th May 2021 (Cancer Journal 7)
- Friday 28th May 2021 Plastic Surgeon
- Wednesday 26th May 2021 Cancer Clinic
- Tuesday 25th May 2021 Left Breast Diagnosis
- Friday 21st May 2021: Biopsy, Left Breast
- Tuesday 18th May (Cancer Journal 6)
- Monday 17th May 2021 Arranging the biopsy
- Saturday 15th May 2021 (Cancer Journal 5)
- Wednesday 12th May 2021 (Cancer Journal 4)
- Friday 07th May 2021 (Cancer Journal 3)
- Cancer surgeon
- Sunday, 02nd May 2021 (Cancer Journal 2)
- Saturday May 01st 2021 ( Cancer Journal 1)
- Facebook post
- How to tell people you have cancer.
- Deciding strategies
- The Camus Question of Choice
- The Follow-up Tests
- The phone call.
- Check your breasts
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