By Donella Meadows
–May 10, 1990–
Six months ago I was diagnosed with Stage II Grade 2 endometrial cancer. Today I feel great. My doctors say there is no more evidence of malignancy.
It has been a heck of a six months. I went through the tortures modern medicine is so good at administering: two kinds of radiation therapy and surgery. I tried out alternative therapies from megavitamins to meditation. (All you have to do is announce that you have cancer, and alternative therapies come at you from all directions.) I have never before felt so disoriented, in such strange territory, nor have I learned so much so fast.
The first and most important lesson, the one I hope never to forget: Life is so sweet. Even the parts I used to complain about, the laundry, the car inspection, cleaning the basement, now I’m thankful that I can do these things painlessly again. And the pleasure of a cat purring, of a child playing, of spring coming — well, such simple things are now enough to bring tears of joy to my eyes.
Lesson Two: The U.S. medical system is impossible. Its maze of bureacracy, technocracy, legality, and crazed economics has stripped health care of the ability to care. It should be called health technology, or health mechanics. I don’t know a patient (and now I know many patients) who hasn’t a personal horror story of confusion, neglect, or outright cruelty from the health profession.
Within the system are skilled, wonderful people, some of whom manage miraculously to exhibit compassion in the midst of rampant bureacracy and unrelenting stress. In my experience the best are nurses, the worst are doctors. Within each category the best are women, the worst are men. But health practitioners, most of whom entered their professions because they cared, shouldn’t have to work in an environment that keeps them too hassled to go on caring.
Therefore, Lesson Three: Stay out of their clutches. Go for all the preventive maintenance you can get. If I had had checkups every year, my cancer might have been detected earlier and my treatment could have been more gentle. If I had eaten and exercised and slept the way I knew I should, I might not have fallen into the over-expensive, over-busy hands of the oncologists at all. I’m now much more willing to care for my body, to tune it up and check it out at least as carefully as I do my car.
Lesson Four: The person who has to be in charge of the cure is the one with the disease. At first I wanted to collapse into a capable health system and let it cure me. It didn’t work that way, partly because of the incapability of the system, partly because that’s not how curing works anyhow. The doctors set the broken bone, but your body knits it back together. The doctors knock out cancer cells; you have to put back healthy ones.
Once I accepted that I had to be my own healer, I began to oversee, question, and participate in the medical process. I evaluated, chose, and even changed doctors. I made decisions about therapy, developed a nourishing diet, and worked to keep myself in a positive frame of mind. It was hard work; it seemed too much for a sick person to have to do. But it was necessary, I believe, for my recovery.
Lesson Five: Alternative methods are kooky, some of them are too far out for me, but they can be effective, and they are the repository for the wisdom modern medicine is forgetting. It was in the holistic health movement that I found an institutionalized respect for caring. I found there a doctor (with an M.D.) who spent an hour interviewing me to see my illness in the context of my life. (I never had the undivided attention of a regular doctor for a whole hour, except when I was unconscious.) Only there did I find intelligent answers to questions like: How can I enhance my immune system, so my body can help fight this disease?
The alternative practitioners take in and give hope to people the medical system pronounces hopeless. They even cure some of them. The very brutality of the official health system sends people flocking to the alternatives — for better or worse.
I think I was helped by both systems. I wish they would talk to and learn from each other.
Lesson Six: People with cancer are some of the most inspiring people in the world. When I was healthy I didn’t go out of my way to be with anyone who had a serious illness. I didn’t need that kind of downer. When suddenly I was surrounded with such people, I learned that they are not downers. With death as a reality, they have discovered what life is about. They are open, vulnerable, loving, honest, and straight to the point. They have no time to wait around for the world or themselves to get better. They act immediately, and they live for what is really important. Their clarity and courage are awe-inspiring.
Life itself is a terminal condition. I wouldn’t let myself believe that before. I had to learn the hard way that an acceptance of the finiteness of life is what allows one to live it, every minute, with purpose and gratitude and rejoicing.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990