Illness as Metaphor

When I asked for prayer requests in church yesterday, someone named Elizabeth Edwards, as if she were someone we knew personally, and I felt
somehow we did. After reading and watching reports over the past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about a friend who died of breast cancer and how although she survived a long time, she was very, very ill and eventually wheelchair bound. I want to say, "Go home and be with the little ones!" But I hear her sense that her husband is called to service of the nation, and I want to consider that, too. A few days ago I saw a clip of an older interview in which she described her decision to stop mourning at her son’s graveside and get up and live a life that reflected his promise. She seems to be doing the same thing now, whatever the medical outcome may be, and God bless her for it. Just because it wouldn’t be my choice doesn’t mean it isn’t the right one for her.

My mother’s cancer was a different sort, but the recurrence took her so quickly, we hardly had time to turn around. My mother-in-law’s death from ovarian cancer was much the same. She told the doctor about symptoms in early May, had surgery just before Mother’s Day and died in mid-August. I know that positive mental attitude makes a difference, but is it possible to be positive *and* opt out of your regular routines?

I’m not sure what I would do if I faced a terminal diagnosis of whatever kind. My work is deeply satisfying and meaningful to me, and a case can be made that it does good for others. But someone else could do those jobs, and no one else could spend time with my husband, children, pets and friends interchangeably with me.

Then I wonder about the breast itself. When I had a scare almost two years ago, I spent some time thinking in horror about life without my breasts. Please understand, I had been told there was something very strange and bad on a CT for a non-breast related medical question. Weeks went by before I could have the diagnostic mammogram that confirmed I just had some weird breast tissue. In those weeks I reflected and panicked about how attached I felt to my breasts. Reason would prevail and I would say to myself, "Surely you are more attached to your life and your family?" Well, yes, but…it was frightening. Breasts have such symbolic power.

And so I wonder if the breast, that emblem of nourishment poured out for others, isn’t a metaphor here for giving of oneself taken too far. I remember the middle school classmate whose mother received a breast cancer diagnosis while pregnant and died not long after the child was born. I think of the giving group of women with whom I used to do Bible Study and the fairly high number within that group diagnosed with breast cancer in their early 40’s.

I don’t mean that being selfish would keep us well, anymore than I think my mother’s Type C personality all by itself fated her to a death from melanoma. But what we give away of ourselves, and whether there is enough left to keep us going, is on my mind and on my heart.

12 thoughts on “Illness as Metaphor”

  1. Thank you for this post, Songbird. In following the Edwardses’ story, I also thought that I would get off the merry-go-round and spend lots of time with my family were I to have a terminal disease.

  2. I resonate with this post, Songbird. It reminds me of a book that’s beloved by many people. People always look at my weird when I say that I hate Shel Silverstein’s, The Giving Tree. It’s no accident that the tree was a “she.” The result of being a giving and loving person shouldn’t be to become a stump.

  3. Beautiful thoughts. When I had my scare in my left breast, I decided that, if it had to be removed then I wanted them BOTH removed. I wanted to live life for myself and for my two children. It did not come to that.
    I guess woman all have to come to the place in themselves.

  4. Thank you for this post… and you know me well enough to know that how much I respect you and what you have written is reflected in what I am NOT typing here because I don’t think it is that kind of post.
    thanks, sb.

  5. My mom’s recurrence was one of those blink-and-she’s-gone things, too.
    But my mom’s recurrence was Elizabeth Edwards’ recurrence: bone metastasis after breast cancer. So I’ve been thinking about my mom and worrying about Ms. Edwards, even though I don’t know her.
    I’m overdue for a mammogram & keep putting it off. Thanks for this post.

  6. I’ve been praying for Elizabeth Edwards and her family since I heard about her health.
    Thanks for all this. You are good for all of us and not interchangable with anyone.

  7. I know so many women who have had breast cancer, and my own scare as well…a biopsy, but just a calcium deposit…still I live with a “marker” in my left breast. (And I spent a week deciding what I was going to do…). Among my friends, Linda, my college roomate died of breast cancer at the young age of 37…I feel so for Elizabeth Edwards, and all women, who have to make such decisions and choices in life..*sigh*…and <>. There are no “right” decisions in situations like these, we all just make the best decisions we can.

  8. Yup. I am with you too! I would totally be off the campaign trail and just with family, friends, nature and of course my cat (who is also family). But, I never would want to be on the trail to begin iwth…don’t like the politcial arena. I am far to sesitive to take the knocks on personal life.
    But, I do respect their decision to stay in this and perhaps inspire others to stay in the fight.

  9. Man, I always instantly think, “If I had terminal cancer? I’d be outta there!”
    However…I’m the one who provides insurance for my family. So without me continuing to work, there would be no chemo, no palliative care, no hospice, etc. Not for very long, anyway.
    Fireplacin’ US medical system!

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