archives, you & me

What Is This Cruel Experience Anyway, This Cancer?


It was a heart attack the first time he died, so when he had an episode that had him end up in the hospital a second time and third, we thought it would be something to do with blood pressure, why his breathing stopped.

Anyway, Mom and I were shocked in that dark quagmire of a waiting room to learn that it was due to internal bleeding, sourced by growths on his esophagus.

All of that week, I collected gingko leaves in a daze, unequipped to perform surgery, administer chemo, or radiation, but more than equipped to fold the brittle leaves into the shape of flowers, to bring him bundle after bundle of these ancient and resilient plants which survived the fallout in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

These living relics serve as symbols of courage with which to face his own weekly nuclear strike, simple things that might ease the fear of impending surgery and lighten the reality of human mortality.

He’s somehow in high spirits, as always, still I ache to see him after surgery, in those first few weeks when he’s machine-fed protein-goop through a tube, when the aether of opiates has him in and out of a deep daze. This is the man who I am born of, the gentle, imaginative, understanding soul who has given me nothing less than compassion and laughter, nothing more than his one and sacred life.

So after the chemo, the surgery, the good news, after six months of cool calm recovery, our collective shock is palpable when the growths return elsewhere: his liver.

Having already had two-thirds of his stomach and esophagus removed, stretched and reattached, the shocking growth of what had at first been deemed minimal surgery-related scar tissue had doubled in size, revealing itself, as yes… likely cancerous. Absolutely. Metastasized, Stage Four.

It is truly disturbing to discover such pure biological evil at work in our world, this ill that disturbs and confounds us. What is it anyway, this cancer? This disease that sways benevolent cells heretic, corrupts bodies from within; seems somehow ironic to know that these cells who live without a natural death cycle are responsible for so much death, and it’s a hard lesson to equate growth with decay.

Cruel experience says to us, five percent in five years will survive. Technology says, maybe we can cure it, but all that can be done is make life last, that is to prolong suffering. One cancer-strike seems a turn of fate, but two seems premeditated, as if some conscious and villainous intelligence sought to drain us of goodness.

Of course, my father, Buddha that he is, has to experience this first, and then let everyone in his life know. The prolonged heartache of this process is only exceeded in the courage and strength rendered, the community of healing that is born, doctors, family, friends, acquaintances, fellow patients who fight the good fight against the enemy within.

All bases are covered: diet, exercise, meditation, relaxation, study, divination, prayer, and while a cure is not found, these remedies for fear are unearthed, salves for terror synthesized. We lie out flat in the dirt sometimes, on common honest ground, open as the skies above us, afforded strength to live in lightness and laughter cooperatively, and reminded to live by loving first, to never let our hearts stop pumping.


Isla-June Whitaker is a wandering artist, musician, and author. Her work, particularly her novel Apothecary, regularly reflects her spirituality, struggles overcoming mental illness, and the profound strengths found in family, sisterhood and the natural world. Raised beneath redwoods, she is likely walking trails barefooted today, or reveling in the over-stimulation of her adopted home of Portland. You could contact her via Instagram or her website.


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