I’m no champion, but I do like chess, ever since Uncle Jack taught me to play as a kid. It’s a strategic game, in which you can think your way out of a fix, picture several moves ahead, and revel in beating a worthy opponent. Lately, it’s been helping me to think of cancer as a chess game.
Remission is a wonderful word and a nice dream to which we with cancer aspire. That’s what the traditional oncology world teaches us. The reality is different. Many of us live with cancer. We don’t get to ring the bell unfettered, declare chemo a success, and get back to “normal life,” whatever that is post-cancer.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a life.
There is such a thing as thriving with stage IV difficult cancers, keeping tumors in checkmate, unable to move and metastasize throughout the body. So, what does that really mean?
In every body, even yours, there are cancer cells forming and dying all the time. When your immune system is strong and undistracted, it takes care of those cells and cancer never creates a ruckus capable of causing symptoms or disrupting bodily functions. For those of us “with a cancer diagnosis,” the game is well underway, and the immune system is losing, distracted by a variety of triggers that are both somewhat and very poorly understood (e.g., modern toxicity beyond our genetic capacity to clear it, stress, nutritional deficiencies). Cancer has us in check.
That’s the situation I was in when I came to Istanbul last November. My body and immune system were overwhelmed by cancer, more than ever. That’s a nice way of saying I was dying, in pain, unable to eat and digest, committed to hospice by my oncologist, and given 3 months to live. That’s just a few more, painful, rounds of chess in which your moves are few and resources limited, with seemingly no way to win.
The surprising thing is that we’ve turned the game around in the last 6 months. I’m still here, stronger than before, with improved clinical presentation, markers, and scans. I miss home and my kids, but I have built a life here. I have friends who are near and who come from afar. I eat. I enjoy. I’m pain-free. I’ve gained muscle and weight. I’m able to walk for miles and explore Istanbul’s neighborhoods and treasures. The side effects from my treatments have been almost none, save another chic minimalist hairdo. I’m not free of all symptoms or visible cancer, but the cancer is on the run. These treatments have been the reinforcement my immune system needed to put the cancer in check. I won’t be free of treatments when I come home at the end of May. The game is not over, but the tables have turned. I hope the cancer cells are feeling as defeated as I did last November…
When I started fighting ovarian cancer in February of 2020, of course, I hoped for a speedy “remission.” Like so many people, I never got it. Even the people who get remission from ovarian and other difficult cancers often have a recurrence so quickly that you wonder what the word remission really means. Traditional oncology presents remission as THE goal. Take your chemo. Ring that bell. You are cured. Enjoy remission. Resume life as usual. We humans like black and white. Winners and losers. It’s not really empathetic to patients, because traditional treatments are limited. The reality is much messier and more of a spectrum.
The earlier the stage, the less aggressive the cancer, the more effective the current treatments (many times this means it’s better to get a more popular cancer with a larger market), the more likely you’ll get cancer on the run to the point that it’s indiscernible on a scan and below certain “safe” numbers in the simplistic markers we’ve figured out how to measure. The word remission is accurate (i.e., “a temporary diminution of the severity of disease or pain”) but the way I was thinking about it was kinda wrong. Cancer-free. Cured. Those are Holy Grail words for cancer patients like me, but I’ve come to believe there isn’t such a thing really. Strategy has been my professional work and passion for decades, so it’s really helped to pivot into thinking about cancer as a strategic game of chess.
There is “check” (the immune system is winning; cancer is on the run) and “checkmate” (the immune system has won; cancer can’t move or hurt you anymore).
What does “checkmate” look like on the outside? No mo chemo. Hair growing back. Bothersome symptoms are gone. Living a thriving life DESPITE a few spots on a scan or a marker that runs high, so long as the cancer is contained. How? Through mothering ourselves just right, which may include ongoing nontoxic anticancer care (e.g., mistletoe therapy; hyperbaric oxygen; clean eating; minimizing stress; safe, slow and ongoing detoxification; continuing to envision a vibrant future). In other words, the rook still needs to stand guard. The horse must stealthily protect against moving into the empty squares. And the queen (in all of us) must use all of her skills and varied powers to keep cancer boxed in. Cancer may have knocked out some pawns and other pieces, but our immune systems are well-equipped so long as we know how to liberate and support them and so long as the treatments empathize with our bodies and don’t destroy them (i.e., integrative with nontoxic support for your healthy cells).
Just as in chess, it helps to have a strategy. To know something about why cancer got the upper hand, and what that means for what to do differently going forward. It’s a worthy opponent. After all, it’s us. Our own cells. Cancer cells are just trying to do what they are biologically programmed to do…replicate. Playing against cancer can take our game of life up a notch. It feels that way for me. Most lessons are things I wouldn’t have learned – at least not as quickly – without being in this game. It has felt like a fast track to certain kinds of soul evolution. At some point, it’s enough. In many ways, I feel I’m there.
Oh, yes, there is always much more to learn. Many more ways to evolve. But there is nothing like almost dying to sharpen priorities, clarify whether and how we still want to be here on this planet, put relationships in context, and force us to seek and find joy in the simple things.
But in this dramatic game of my immune system vs cancer, I’ve moved to having the cancer in check, working toward checkmate…
Cheers to that.
Photo credit: Susan Colby