This article was excerpted with permission from "Speak the Language of Healing," published by Conari Press.

I thought I was ready for death. After all, the thought of death is part of my daily spiritual practice. The mystical imagery of my Sufi tradition is filled with quotes from dervishes who say, "Die before death and live forever!" Or the words of poets like Rumi who say, "Now you must be annihilated in love." This is the good kind of death, the death of what the mystics call the false self. The old self is supposed to shatter like an eggshell, making room for a new self, one that is made in the image of God. This transformation is the essence of the spiritual path.


"I seem to get two reactions to my terminal prognosis. One is the people who try to tell me my cancer is really no big deal. There are so many people who have it worse than me, they tell me. This is true, but knowing that fact does not at all lighten my burden.

The other reaction, the one I encounter more often, is utter, unconscious horror. It is as if I have the words You are going to die tattooed on my forehead, and people do not like looking at me because I remind them of their mortality."
-- co-author Karen Stroup
Then I heard the words: You have cancer. The translation in my mind and body was immediate and visceral. "I am going to die." There was nothing the least bit spiritual about this experience. Oh, no, not this kind of death. This death of the body, good-bye, never enjoy the air or a kiss, an endless nothing kind of death. I was not centered or mystical. I was in shock.

Still, I never felt as if I were in battle with my disease. My struggle was for understanding. My deepest feeling throughout my illness was a sense of loss, but not the "I lose" of a fight. Mine was the loss associated with grief, and the loss of a sense of well-being that I took for granted. I felt that my body had betrayed me.

The thought of death continues to be part of my meditation practice, but I am much more humble in claiming that I understand. I am so glad to be alive that having a false ego is not high on my list of worries. Cancer turned out to be a spiritual catalyst. Something I had been sensing for years became concrete. It is hard to put into words. Maybe it is the experience of the spirit made into flesh. Life is borrowed and exquisitely precious.

I don't know if I will ever say that I have come to terms with cancer. I view it as a chronic disease, something that may recur, or may be present though undetected. do not think about it every day. It is fading into the background, becoming something else that can happen to me.

Cancer turned out to be a spiritual catalyst...Life is borrowed and exquisitely precious.

I hold in my heart all those with great spirit and determination, like my brother-in-law, who die of cancer. Or people like Carol's friend who died of lung cancer, an effervescent woman who worried that her fighting efforts were not good enough.

Some research studies suggest that a "fighting spirit" may prolong life. Whether or not this is true, it does not guarantee a cure. The concept of "fighting spirit" has a dark side, especially when we say someone "lost her battle." It leaves open that terrible door to believing that if she had fought harder, she would still be alive.

There are other, more positive metaphors for disease. The poet Rumi writes that being a person is like being a guesthouse. Joy, depression, illness, and fear come as unexpected visitors. Our job is to welcome every guest, even if they are a crowd of sorrows. Each may be a guide to some further understanding.

If I die of cancer, I do not want my obituary to say, "She lost her battle with cancer." Instead, please write, "She welcomed every guest." And that she lived--and died--in the best way she knew how.

Reprinted with permission from "Speak the Language of Healing: Living with Breast Cancer without Going to War," by Susan Kuner, Carol Matzkin Orsborn, Linda Quigley, and Karen Leigh Stroup. Copyright 1999 by the authors. Permission granted by Conari Press.

Do you have questions you'd like Susan or any of her co-authors to answer? Please send them in an email to: columnists@staff.beliefnet.com. Be sure to include "Speak Healing" in the subject line.

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