Don't Fear The Reaper?

I just watched a super eerie and creepy episode of Vikings (I won't spoil it for you...I am digging season two very much though, more so than the first), that got me remembering when I was trying to write about death as a cancer survivor (cheery, I know!) for my cancer memoir. I do think that having the threat of looming and then less looming death hanging over me for several years has imprinted on my psyche (I am SO MUCH FUN at parties!). Seriously though, I just think this stuff, I don't say it out loud....

Having cancer makes you morbidly interested in and aware of death in a way that you maybe might not have been before. Death, once an abstract concept, a plot device in films or books, is suddenly a quiet, uninvited guest in the room. No one acknowledges he’s there (Death is unquestionably a man), but his presence is felt. Horror films might suddenly seem unbearably glib, especially during cancer treatment when you are dealing with a steadily less vital appearance in the mirror. Celebrity autopsy shows, unquestionably the lowest of the low, hold unfathomable sway. You suddenly need to know how many barbituates it takes to fell a pop culture icon. 
You feel like this death thing is a whisper away, and much as it terrifies you, some small, daring part of you wants to get to know it better. The woods are lovely, dark and deep. 

I don’t want to think about it, but I know I did and do far more than I ever did before. Having little religious belief other than a slightly blind optimism that our dust, once in the wind, maybe becomes something yet still, maybe not a spirit, but maybe a quiet little feather of life force that infinitesimally can somehow be something other than blackness, helps me a little bit.

Of course I’m terrified, but weirdly, the longer this cancer thing has had to take hold, to grip and terrify and nearly wring the life out of me, the less afraid I have become. Is this a false, self comforting delusion just because I made it? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think the more you think about something, the less of a completely alien, blackly terrifying thing it’s bound to become. It’s not to say I’m ready or willing to die, I’m not a Lana Del Rey song, but I get it, just a little bit, in a way, that might have taken several more decades in a normal life’s run perhaps.

We’re here, then we’re gone. We need to do our best to enjoy the things we love and not sweat too much small stuff. Profound? Sorry, no. But true. When something, big or small, makes you feel particularly good or optimistic, or just like you belong, embrace it. Don’t run away. 
A very wise and talented actress and teacher called E.Katherine Kerr wrote the most wonderful acting manual, The Four Principles, that I first read many years ago, which as well as NAILING it when it comes to acting, contains so much wisdom that I think can also be applied to living life to the fullest. She just gets it. I'll never forget reading her words for the first time, and they have always stuck with me.

She describes how as actors, many of us have an inbuilt instinct to run away when we are scared of something, oftentimes something that we want more than anything. We create roadblocks of why we can’t do something, the part is all wrong for us, etc. I cannot count the number of times I auditioned, got a callback, and the immediate feeling was "Oh yes!...wait, No, I'm terrified, I can't do it!" Of course the (usual) inevitable rejection resulted in "Oh, why didn't I throw everything at it? I SUCK. I'm never putting myself through that again." A few times I wasn't brave enough to audition for the part I really wanted, so instead went for "girl in background number 3", and then got really upset when I didn't get it. Putting yourself out there half way rarely works. Or weirdly when you do get the part you want, you become filled with more terror and flight instinct than you've ever felt in your life.You can't win!

Kerr writes that nine times out of ten this is a thing she calls “AHDWANNA” (“I don’t want to!”, in pure gut terror form). “Ahdwanna” is something we all feel, she writes, usually when presented with the thing we most want in the world. We mistake it for "I don't want to" in order to talk ourselves out of doing the things we want most but are afraid we will fail miserably at.

She has much more great advice on ways of embracing the fear than I can begin to describe. I took her class once but didn't continue, I think partially because I couldn't handle the real-ness of it (plus tbh her classes were slightly out of my starving actress budget at that stage). But I knew that there was a way forward after feeling like I was floundering for so long, and I shied away from it.

In my fledgling acting days I was lucky in that people gave me praise when I was brave enough to go for it, but I never quite believed it or understood where it came from. Sure, there are a lucky few who seem born in complete control of their craft, and I have watched them with awe and envy. But most of us are flailing around, trying to figure out a way to convey what we think we are supposed to be conveying, all while having an internal motivation to guide us. Sometimes they sync up and click into place. Sometimes you just randomly hit the sweet spot and know you've nailed it. But most of the time it is a lot of effort to appear as natural as possible, for most people I know anyway.

The basis of Kerr's method revolves around "being present", of which much is written now - but back then she was one of its early proponents. To this day she has one of the few methods of actually accomplishing this simple sounding thing on a deep level that is hard to describe (I highly recommend her book if you are interested, but getting present with another person who knew the technique was always the easiest way for me to accomplish it). It's therapeutic, it's terrifying, and it's usually guaranteed to make you cry. Sounds awful(!), but it's not. It's like being able to breathe the cleanest air again after being underwater your whole life. Getting in touch with your body, examining what you are truly feeling, in any given moment, can be deeply scary and uncomfortable. But ultimately, I think, beneficial, and not just for actors.

Unfortunately prior to this I had been studying acting full time at a school that took the complete opposite approach. Everything was broken down into microscopically cerebral pieces, for each action we were required to have a pre-meditated reason thought up in our head, written down and word for word emphasized, and the whole time I just thought "Why is this so hard? I suck at this!" She showed me a way to begin to understand where it comes from, to live in the moment, not the head, and I kick myself to this day that I didn't explore it further in terms of acting. Maybe someday.

It’s scary to be present with our true feelings and desires. So many of us don't or can't even approach it if we're honest. How many people marry their best friend after refusing to admit for years that they were the one? I know a few anyway. It’s easier to run away, to be alone, to protect ourselves from the pain of rejection, be it from love, a job or anything in life that we desperately want but don’t believe we’ll ever get because we think we're not worthy or capable.

One of the few gifts of cancer is that it eliminates any of this “Ahdwanna” pretty damn quick. Suddenly you are Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning, and life’s just much clearer. Buy the big turkey, you only live once.

Cancer remission is something people think you spring out of like a greyhound the minute you hear the word remission. But it's not. It's a cloudy dreamscape place still full of terrors and dark corners that you can't help but look into sometimes. People close to me are still dealing with it, and I feel guilty for beginning to feel "clear" of it.

There honestly is no such thing as an "All Clear" for most cancer patients. It's another myth. The doctors tell you not to think about certain things for two years, five years afterwards, and despite yourself you put life on hold. That is the truth. To the outside world you are a "survivor" but you are still a person who goes to scans and holds their breath and thinks anti-cancer thoughts while the machines whir and they play freaking Coldplay (PET Scans = elevator music soft rock hell).

Death is not the most popular guy, but he is surprisingly like that friend who always tells you what you already know but don’t want to hear. If you are lucky enough to meet him and walk away, it’s not something you quickly forget. Oh sure, I get caught up in the day to day like anyone else, I'm hardly walking around in a cloud of zen satisfaction. But I know what the scariest, purest form of life or death clarity feels like, and sometimes a gentle reminder snaps me back to it.

Maybe it's taken me longer than most people to let go of it, but I finally feel like I'm ready. I'm done with things that don't matter, and I'm ready to let go of fear. I'm ready to breathe again. And I do know that's a gift to try to embrace and not run away from. Maybe the seeds of my earlier acting experiences helped me to look death in the face, just a tiny bit, because they forced me to deal with uncomfortable feelings that I would have preferred to ignore. All I do know is that I think I'm as o.k. with it as I'm ever going to be, and I'm ready to move on from living in the moment with such a dark presence in the room.


  1. It's funny how differently people react to this - I know people who have survived cancer and immediately started taking risks (or at least agonising less about decisions - see: my mum marrying someone she'd only known a few months) and others who have survived cancer and seemingly put their life on hold, sometimes for years. I can't really comment on it - I just find it interesting.

    As you say, most of us have times of avoiding going after what we want because it scares us but I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what you choose to do next.

    1. It's generally good to move forward from it, I just feel like society does have this expectation that all cancer survivors go out and run marathons and do other amazing stuff right away. I think there is a real dearth of psychological assistance afterwards, as it's only then that you even begin to process it.