For a long time I have thought about a tattoo to commemorate that I am a cancer survivor. But for four years, I haven’t done it. The hesitation came from something I read in an illness recovery book, that we have to be careful about the way we visualize our illness and our struggle against it. It makes so much sense not to use images of violence, domination, anger, loss. A sick person does not need to bring these energies into their life.
I didn’t battle my cancer. I told it to leave. And then I shut the door against its return. I guard the door carefully, with all the things that reduce my stress and keep me peaceful: food, exercise, God, family, friends and creating.
This is not new age-y philosophy. This is ancient wisdom, reflected in the scripture of Proverbs 17:22: A joyful heart is good medicine, But a broken spirit dries up the bones.
So even though the symbol of thyroid cancer is a butterfly–and what could be more peaceful than a butterfly–I wasn’t sure this was good medicine.
Then last week I read this*:
If we stay survivors only without moving to thriving, we limit ourselves and we cut our energy to ourselves and our power in the world to less than half…once the threat is past, there is a potential trap in calling ourselves by names taken on during the most terrible times of our lives…it is not good to base the soul identity solely on the feats and losses and victories of the bad times”.
For a long time, every time I said out loud that I was a cancer survivor, a voice in my head yelled “GOOD LORD! I HAD CANCER! I COULD HAVE DIED A YOUNG WIFE AND LEFT BEHIND MY KIDS WHO WOULD HAVE NEVER REMEMBERED ME!!!!”
Every time, it was like hitting a wall. Or any other metaphor that describes the moment in a perfectly wonderful normal day when something makes you remember: I have been hurt. I have been abused. I have lost. I could have died.
It took me a long time to get past that place. It took a lot of work, prayer, reading and support. That time in my life is still framed in fear and anger and doubt, but those emotions are no longer with me on a daily basis.
If I marked my body with a symbol of that time, then those emotions would permanently be present. And for the love of all that is good, why would I do that to myself?
Whatever we have survived—cancer, sexual assault, violence, addiction, loss, our parent’s ugly divorce, our own ugly divorce—it’s part of us, but not who we are. It’s a piece of our story, but not the whole story. The story isn’t over yet and we have to choose carefully which emotions and energies we are going to carry forward.
Not just for our mental and emotional health, but for our physical health as well. Because how we feel, and what’s inside of us deep, deep down will manifest itself physically. It will make us pay attention.
If you are in the midst of surviving, in the midst of the battle for your life and your heart, soldier on. Don’t be scared of the scars you are earning. Scars heal stronger than what was there before. I’m proud of my scars.
But if you are past the battle, like I am, then we have to consider the truth in the words: There is danger in calling ourselves by names we earn in the hardest times in our lives. We can get stuck there, in the pain, fear, anger, grief, bitterness, abandonment, addiction. Or worse, bring these things forward into our future where they will constantly demand our attention and make us sick in body and spirit.
I don’t want to manifest anger, fear, illness. I want to manifest joy and health. So no butterfly.
But that doesn’t mean no ink. It just means I am waiting for the right inspiration.
For you make me glad by your deeds, Lord; I sing for joy at what your hands have done. How great are your works, Lord, how profound your thoughts!– Psalm 92:4-5
*From Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes