Finding hegira from cancer

“You have cancer.”

You hear the words.  Your mind does not understand.

“You have cancer.”

Shock.  Distance.  Isolation.  Someone else.  A mistake.  A lie.  Bizarre, strange, you float above the room.  Everyone speaks; nothing is said.

“You have cancer.”

A fog-like curse, a venomous reality, a phantom idea.  A cold ghost foreign to the soul.  I must run. Escape. Deny.  Get away.


Hegira:  to take flight to escape.  To travel from a place of danger to a place of safety.


To emotionally survive cancer, we must create perspective; distance between the disease and ourselves.  How can we run away from our own flesh, bone and blood?  How can one flee from an invader, which matches our every step?  Patients do it everyday.

Some patients  “take control” of their health and lives.  There is comfort in becoming an expert in one’s illness.  Know the facts, the data, and the choices.  Leave one’s body and be a critical observer of decisions and care.  The doctor’s defense, clinical distance.

Others abdicate responsibility and knowledge.  Do not know.  Do not understand.  Do not care.  Let someone else make the choices. Perhaps the doctor.  Or the spouse.  Safety by not being involved … in yourself.

A few patients compartmentalize well.  “I am only sick when I am at the hospital or clinic.”   “I have cancer, but just on Tuesday when I get chemo.”  “The cancer is only in my lymph nodes, which means everything else is healthy.”

Other patients immerse themselves in day-to-day life.  They work hard or give to others.  They create, change, act, lead or follow. “I have responsibilities, I do not have time to be sick.”  Their minds fill with social involvement and complex tasks.  They focus somewhere else, not in the body. They push down the beast.

There is great peace for many in prayer.  The temple, mosque and church lift the burden of disease, which is so heavy and daunting.  Prayer mends the soul and gives eternal balance to suffering.

Some patient’s take real journeys, as their bodies allow. They travel the world not to complete some list, but to leave the disease behind.  Flooded with new smells, ideas and culture, it is possible to forget illness, if just for a while.

There is healing and perspective in catharsis.  Humor purges pain and floods the mind with fresh air and peace.  Tears give relief and freedom.  We need the comfort, which comes from both laughter and crying; they are two sides of the same feeling.

All of these, and more, are ways of finding peace and distance between life and disease.  Every patient does several, combined and at different times.  However, it seems to me that the greatest success in obtaining hegira from cancer is from love.

The bond between two persons or among many is the greatest power for healing of all. The connection between husband and wife, child and mother, brother and sister, friend, doctor and even colleague, is the base on which the greatest emotional peace can be achieved.

Love is there at moments of joy and loss.  Love holds us when we are weak and celebrates when we are strong.  Humans are lifted by the power of love and never is it more wonderful, powerful and important, then when we are weak and sick.  Not only does love give comfort, support and guidance, it helps us find our way.  Love is the magnificent, gentle guide on our journey to find hegira, together.



  • Liz
    The catch with love is that the people who love you and whom you love are also affected by your cancer… and they respond in different ways too. As a result they may or may not be emotionally be able to support you. In fact you may have to be their support while in the midst of your own crisis. That is certainly generally also true when you have younger kids. On a lighter note I have joked that I'd love to run away from home - the only problem is I'd have to bring myself with me (well and my kid too since I have no one to leave her with) LOL
  • So well said, Doctor. Your words have such simple abundance and heart today. Thank you.
  • Ray
    This was a 'great' paper, it really hit home. My wife is gone just over 2 months and I'm still 'adjusting'. Reading this I realize she, and I, were in the 'take control' group. She wanted to know everything and you really helped in that regard as we never felt there was a question we could not ask. We appreciated you attention to our questions, some asked multiple times, and also your straight talk when it came to bad news. Today found a bright red refrigerator magnet buried behind grand children photo. A simple message, "BE CALM, CARRY ON". This is now my task and once again she has guided me on. I still don't know how you do your job, and so well thanks
  • Liz
    I have found how I cope changes over time. I also find I deal with stress with information, regardless of how else I cope.
  • D Someya Reed
    I agree with you on the power of love. How even just two people can draw such strength from each other that no more is needed from any other source. But too often those in the medical profession(s) find this so improbable and/or incomprehensible that they must label it as “denial.” Every patient/situation you’ve described is no more than a fine line away from such an accusation and labeling by many practitioners. How do medical schools (today) teach such esoteric, humanistic concepts as the power of love and the proper diagnosis of denial? Do they teach that there are degrees of denial? How do they even define denial when, most often, it is simply no more than a disagreement with the practitioner's medical conclusions or treatment plan. And, under any medical circumstance, what benefits (besides monetary in the form of treatment or continued treatment) are derived from accusing any patient or family member(s) of denial? Just asking because I've talked with literally hundreds of practitioners, mostly end-of-life types, that would just run down your list with denial, denial, denial and have said predominately that it would be their "duty" to make the patient and/or family "face facts." That's why it seems laughable to me now (and not in a humorous way) that those same practitioners would say that after you "face facts" it's all about life. They had to learn this somewhere.
  • Your piece prompted me to thing about my best "definition" of love - the willingness to be in the same space as the beloved. This awakens primal memory of when there was only ONE of us in the heart of the mystery. But, I digress. My own diagnosis of cancer (metastatic retroperitoneal leiomyosarcoma) evoked such an outpouring of support that I often said that I had no room for fear because I was so full of gratitude. That is saying something because, after you have the reaction you so eloquently express to the diagnosis of cancer, to THEN be told that YOUR cancer is so rare that they really do not have a clue as to how to cure it is good reason for fear. If there is "healing" in love, then I would extend your suggestion of love to include the cancer. I have never been interested in "fighting" my cancer and making it my enemy. This, to my way of thinking, gives it power. I have always thought of my disease as a few uppity cells who think way too much of themselves and are misbehaving like an errant child. So my job is to gently but firmly correct this aberrant behavior. I dialog with my cancer and try to figure out what it wants. I try to teach it how to get what it wants by not killing me. And I am not above having it cut out, burned or frozen out if it gets TOO uppity. (Trust in Allah and tie up your camel.) And I also hope to practice love if this naughty child refuses to listen to me when it is all said and done. I do not want to die from this cancer and ... there is no cure. And we all have an expiration date. So my hope is that I will live and die in love - embracing whatever moment I am in and whatever progress this disease has made or not made up to the last "moment." Will this attitude, this practice, "heal" me? It really doesn't matter. What I have now is NOW and I choose to embrace it all, warts and all, cancer and all.
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  • […] There is healing and perspective in catharsis. Humor purges pain and floods the mind with fresh air and peace. Tears give relief and freedom. We need the comfort, which comes from both laughter and crying; they are two sides of the same feeling. (For the whole article, see: […]

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