I want to tell you about my reaction when I was told I had colon cancer last week and how I have been dealing with the diagnosis ever since. Not because I think you are particularly interested in details about my health, but because I did something very unusual—yet something anyone can learn to do, something that can eliminate suffering from your life.
Here’s the relevant background
I have been visiting an oncologist (a cancer doctor) regularly for over eight years because of an earlier diagnosis of a type of blood cancer. That illness was never very serious and had been managed originally by a very healthy diet, alternative procedures like acupuncture, and a bunch of herbs and supplements. Eventually the condition did get worse and my doctor recommended (and I agreed to) a course of chemotherapy that resulted in total remission.
When I visited my oncologist about three weeks ago for a normal checkup she noticed that all my blood work was back to normal, as she had expected, except for my red cells being abnormally low. They were so low that I had anemia. She explained to me that the red cells should have improved along with the other blood markers. She said she wanted to run some addition blood tests to find out why.
There was an event: I had anemia. I didn’t give that event any meaning. In other words, I didn’t know anything for sure as a result of that event.
The new blood tests showed that my iron and certain other related blood markers were very low. That was another event and I didn’t give it any meaning.
The doctor said the most likely cause of the results was internal bleeding, so she ordered a fecal occult blood test to check for microscopic blood in the stool. That test was positive. That was another event and I didn’t give it any meaning.
To find out the source of the bleeding she ordered a colonoscopy. The gastroenterologist who did the colonoscopy told my wife Shelly and me that the biopsy of two masses in the colon indicated colon cancer. At that point we knew the source of the low red blood count, the iron deficiency, and the blood in my stool.
I also learned that if the cancer had not spread beyond the lining of the colon and it was removed surgically, the problem would be totally solved. If it had spread to other organs, then the prognosis could be serious. But all I knew for sure was that I needed a relatively simple surgery to remove the piece of the colon that contained the two malignant masses. That was another event and I did not give it any meaning.
And because, as I’ve explained on several occasions, virtually all feelings come from the meaning we give events and not the events themselves, I never got scared or upset in the least as I got each new piece of information about my condition.
But what if you were told your odds of survival were very low?
When I told Shelly I was writing this she warned me that some people might say: “Sure you’re not scared; you know you’ll probably be cured. What if you discover the cancer has spread and the odds of you surviving were very low?”
I am in the process of arranging to have surgery in the next week or two. My oncologist said that given all the information she has, the odds that the cancer has not spread and will be removed totally when the section of colon containing the malignant masses is surgically removed is 80%. But I think that no matter what they find when the cancer is removed and analyzed, I probably will continue to give the pathology report no meaning.
I have gotten to the point where I am no longer attached to things, including my life, and, at the same time, I am incredibly passionate about my family and my work and all that I still intend to do until the day I die.
Create meaning consciously
How can I possibly be passionate if I have stopped giving meaning to events? One criticism that has been leveled at the idea of living without giving meaning to events is that people without emotions would be robots, automatons. They would cease to be human, as we understand human.
To begin with, I am not arguing that people should live without emotions. I am simple stating that it is not necessary to live with the emotions that result from the unconsciously- and automatically-created meaning in our minds. You can if you want to. But there is an alternative approach. It is possible to consciously create meaning when you want to.
Here’s how. In a game we pretend that something is more important than something else. If you get a little white ball in a hole hundreds of yards away with less “strokes” than someone else, you “win.” Getting certain cards “beats” someone with other cards. Amassing more property with houses and hotels than everyone else in Monopoly enables you to accumulate all the money and “win the game.”
In every game we make up the rules and then pretend that they are the “right” way to play. And here’s the important part: When we “win” we are excited; when we “lose” we are disappointed. In “reality” nothing has changed. Our relationships, our work, our wealth, etc. are all the same. And yet we can be passionate when playing a game.
It is possible to play life as a game. It is possible to give meaning to your family, to your work, to anything you want to give meaning to. On some level you know that you made up the meaning, but while playing the game of life you experience it as real. And when you do, you can experience joy or sadness.
The difference between consciously creating meaning and thinking the automatically- and unconsciously-created meaning is real is that you can choose to remember you are playing a game at any time. When you think your meanings are real, you are at the effect of them. When you know you consciously made them up, you are not. (For more details about playing life as a game see an earlier post, http://www.mortylefkoe.com/life_is_a_game/.)
You don’t need meaning to act
Another common fallacy is the argument that you need to give meaning to events in order to be motivated to act. You do not. If you got fired from your job, you would not have to see it as a disaster to look for a new job.
In fact, by not giving meaning to events—thereby eliminating the possibility of stress and upset—you are able to think more clearly about the best possible action to take to deal with the events. Moreover, I and many others whom I’ve trained to dissolve meaning automatically have found that when we dissolve the meaning we have given to events we see more possibilities for action than we had seen before.
If I discover that my cancer has spread and that I only have a 5% chance of survival past five years, even getting that information would have no meaning. And yet I would research every possible allopathic and alternative treatment that might help me survive. I would intend to be one of the surviving 5%.
(In the past couple of days since writing this we discovered that the cancer in my colon has metastasized and spread to my liver. I now have fourth stage colon cancer. As a result the surgery was cancelled and I will be starting chemotherapy in a couple of days. I am still not giving meaning to my condition.)
How to deal with a doctor’s diagnosis
I remember reading 28 years ago in Dr. Bernie Siegel’s book, Love, Medicine and Miracles: “Accept your doctor’s diagnosis; ignore the prognosis.” In other words, if a doctor’s expert opinion is that you have a specific illness, you probably do (but not necessarily). But doctors can never predict for certain what will happen to you as a result of the diagnosis. I realized many years later that a diagnosis is the event; the prognosis is meaning.
I read Dr. Siegel’s comment long before I became able to automatically dissolve the meaning I unconsciously and automatically gave events all day long.
You can do it too
My purpose of describing how I’ve reacted to the recent changes in my health is not to brag or to imply I am enlightened or better than anyone else. I would not reacted for most of my life the way I have recently. For most of my life I gave meaning to events 20 to 50 times a day like almost everyone else does and I was upset and anxious much of the time. I am telling this story because I learned how to stop giving meaning to events so consistently that I don’t give even a cancer diagnosis any meaning. And, as a result, I have felt no upset or anxiety since my oncologist’s initial concern about my low red blood cell count.
There is nothing I am able to do now that you can’t learn how to do too.
Courage is highly overrated
Several friends who I told about the events I’ve just described said that I was displaying incredible courage. Actually I’m not showing any courage at all. Courage is acting in the face of fear; acting in spite of fear; not letting fear stop you. I am not experiencing fear, so my ability to calmly think about what to do next and move forward is not a display of courage.
My friends’ comments made me think: If you are going to feel fear, it’s good to have courage so your fear doesn’t stop you. We look up to and want to emulate heroes, people who act with courage.
But there is an alternative that’s even better than courage: Eliminate the meaning that causes the fear so that you don’t have to act despite experiencing it. If you put people who show courage on a pedestal as people to emulate, then you are saying, implicitly, that if you want to be a hero it is important to have fear that you can overcome. If you don’t feel fear, you can’t act in spite of it and show courage.
Praising courage is part of a bigger cultural issue that assumes life is going to be difficult and praises people who learn from their “inevitable” unhappiness, their pain, and their sorrow. If your life is miserable, you might as well learn from it, but actually, none of those unpleasant feelings are inevitable.
“You must be in denial”
Not too long ago I asked a friend for advice after telling him about a business setback I had experienced. He assumed I was very upset and when I told him I wasn’t, he replied: “If you aren’t upset in this situation, you are in severe denial.”
Most people are convinced that it is impossible to live without at least some suffering. Everyone knows that certain situations, like having a severe business setback or a cancer diagnosis, have to result in upsetting emotions. The best we can do is show courage.
During the last year or so I have rarely experienced negative feelings of any kind; as a result I feel virtually no stress and no suffering.
My purpose of writing this post is to say the common assumption that suffering is necessary is wrong. A cancer diagnosis or any other “undesirable” situation doesn’t have to be scary. Events cannot cause stress; only your meaning can. In fact, although you can’t always control the events in your life, you can totally control your experience of life.
I’ve written extensively on how to use the Lefkoe Freedom Process to dissolve occurrings. See especially http://www.mortylefkoe.com/important-improve-life/ and http://www.mortylefkoe.com/what-they-seem-2/. You can also view my TEDx talk, “How to Stop Suffering,” where I walk the viewer through the process for dissolving meaning: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMdVM-t5kFs.
Thanks for reading my blog. Please post your questions or comments on how a cancer diagnosis does not have to result in anxiety and how we can control our experience of life. Disagreement is as welcome as agreement. Your comments add value for thousands of readers. I love to read them all and I will respond to as many as I can.
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