On Writing, Oncology Massage, Thoughts on the profession

Beyond Stillness

I am currently re-reading The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It is a fascinating, novelistic, nerdtastic telling of the history of cancer. There are so many facts and nuggets in it that are buried in the larger story, and are breathtaking in their own right. Today, I am thinking of one of those nuggets.

In my edition of the book, Mukherjee states (somewhat erroneously) that the root of the word “metastasis” means “beyond stillness.”

Let’s put aside, for the moment, the actual root of the word, and consider the breathtaking poetry that is “Beyond Stillness.”

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Metastasis, as we currently understand it, is the movement of a disease from one part of the body to another. In cancer land, this can exponentially increase the dangers of a particular disease process. Every cancer patient hopes to be free of metastasis, leaving the rest of their body intact and functional. (As much as it can be after systemic treatments like chemotherapy, anyway.)

We shorten metastasis to “mets” in talking about progression of cancer. Breast cancer with bone mets. Lung cancer with brain mets. This short, sharp, easier to say word that contains within it layers of fear, anxiety, and potential physical pain.

Which brings me back, to beyond stillness. With cancer metastasis, the disease has moved beyond the stillness of a body at rest in wellness. It has moved beyond the stillness of an in situ tumor which yields obediently to removal or treatment. The disease moves beyond stillness into a kind of strobe light-illuminated motion, where the confirmation of movement comes through the flashes of a PET/CT scan.

And what exists beyond stillness?

Is it the growth of the opposite, a kind of frantic and endless motion that never quite rests, never quite allows the body to rest?

Or can we find, beyond stillness, another level of stillness — something even more quiet? Is the movement beyond stillness like the movement from the parking lot at the top of a hiking trail to the spot a mile or so down the trail, where all the city noises are erased and the senses can expand into this new space?

The simple etymology of metastasis, mistaken though it may be, leads to a particular kind of poetry. This is the poetry of words that lead into a compassionate and loving meditation on life, disease, and death. This is the poetry of breathing and being in a vulnerable, human body.

Lost Literary Files, Thoughts on the profession

Listen to What the Nice Poem Says

There is a wonderful poem by Mary Karr called “The Voice of God.”  It ends with these amazing lines:

” . . . .It says the most obvious crap—
put down that gun, you need a sandwich.”

I highly encourage you to follow the link above and read the whole poem.  It is a lovely example of simple language put together in a deep, thoughtful, and funny way.  I wish I had written it, but as it is, I am making sure everyone within reach of my voice or my email or this blog gets the chance to see it.

I love this poem for many reasons, but mostly I love it because it cuts through our inflated selves and reminds us that the simplest thing is often the answer.  Let me offer you another amazing turn of phrase:

“When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.”

zebra fur
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That gem was coined by Dr. Theodore Woodward in the 1940s.  He was trying to impress upon his medical interns the idea that in most cases, the more common diagnosis is the correct one.

I am reflecting on simplicity, self-care, and the general need for sandwiches this week as a bunch of threads in my life are coming together.  They could so easily become tangled in a frayed knot, or they could simply lie next to each other, in calm order.  This is the last week of the term for my students, so twice a week at 8am (yes, I teach an 8am class), I get another dose of Someone Has Just Realized Deadlines are Real.  I have several trips planned in the next few months, which brings all the coordination of flying, driving, finding a place to stay and editing my client schedule.  And, I have just booked my next far away international adventure, which will require me to be in pretty good physical health.

It is tempting to add to the pile with lots of complicated exercise practices and sophisticated organizational tools.  Yet, the truth is that maybe I don’t need some grand scheme with background music by angels.  Maybe I just need to sit down, look at the next week, or day, or hour instead of trying to hold three months in my head.  Maybe I just need to go for a run, drink some water, and eat a sandwich.

stack of pancakes on round black ceramic plate
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And you, you with your eyes on this screen, what is the simple thing being obscured by flourishes?  Maybe you just need an hour for yourself — a massage.  And a sandwich.