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The Ontology of Oncology
By Linnet Hunter
That’s all she said. A mild phrase, but when spoken by an examining doctor with the weighty authority of western medicine behind it, it conveys a world of meaning that is felt in the solar plexus.
This was the beginning of my learning through cancer. Apart from having three children, I had never been in close contact with specialists, procedures, doctors or medical institutions. All this was new to me.
What was what not new or surprising was that the hospital was full of conversations. This article is an exploration of some of the ones I observed and was part of during my year in the health system.
1. What mood is that?
At the very first visit, before the examination, I began to talk to the doctor about some stuff that had been affecting my quality of life in small, subtle and important ways. I said things like;
Well, that’s to be expected at my age ...
There’s not much you can do about that ...
I just have to accept that, really ...
And as the conversations that had been in my head were spoken out loud, I was jolted into recognising the language of the mood of Resignation. I wasn’t in the peaceful state of acceptance I thought I was in, but had donned a mask of Acceptance and Resignation sagged behind it.
In the health domain of my life, this sneaky mood of giving up and giving in was pervasive. The inability to act that is part of this mood, and the consequences of that inaction turned out to be quite sinister indeed. A five by four centimetre cervical tumour which had grown quite fast in the two years between one pap smear test and the next.
2. Talking to my tumour
During the Graduate Diploma of Ontological Coaching course I had observed Alan Sieler coach a number of participants to converse with the parts of their physical selves that were in pain or needing attention. Alan invited me to use this approach to talk to my tumour. He gently offered me some ways of entering such an unusual dialogue.
I relaxed into a meditative state, placed my hands over my pelvis where the tumour was, visualised and addressed it. I began with asking if it was willing to take part in the conversation, to which the answer was an instant yes. Next I apologised for having neglected and mistreated myself on occasion. The response here was not instantaneous. It took a long while for the apology to be accepted.
I am not able here to share all the intimacies of what went on in this strange and revelatory talk, held in utter silence, but it was a most frightening and reassuring experience. The replies were loving, gentle and firm. The conversation enabled me to experience my treatment from a mood of Gratitude and Hope. The ease of spirit that this brought me created a healing space within.
3. Reframing with language
In our community the common way of languaging the experience of cancer is as a fight, a battle, a war. This was not my experience. I refused to take up arms, and I asked those around me not to use that language. My love for myself extended to the lesion. It couldn’t be my enemy because it was part of me. It was a part I didn’t need, a part that was not serving me, although I believed it had a lesson to teach me.
My inner wisdom told me that fighting with my own self could only add to the pain, but in Acceptance and kindness there would be liberation. Each day I blessed and released my tumour from my life.
4. Organisational conversations
The staff at the hospital acted from a consistent mood of Ambition. I saw this in calm, friendly conversations and interactions at every level. It was demonstrated through enormous patience, quietness and a lack of defensiveness even when attacked or complained to. Visitors, carers, families and especially patients were often in moods of Resignation and Resentment. The staff were not drawn into these but maintained their collegiate and organisational mood of embracing possibility.
The staff recognised that the patient’s biological system held the key to their own future healing. They engaged in constant respectful conversations of clarity to help me observe and respond to my body’s signs and signals that provided space for regular inner learning and healing.
5. Conversation for appreciation
One day on the chemo ward a visiting doctor approached the nurse on duty, and explained that she and the team of other doctors on another floor had observed the work this nurse had done on the previous day with a particular patient. That work had made a great deal of difference to the outcome, and so the doctor was visiting today to express their appreciation. The nurse replied that she had not worked alone, her colleague was equally involved and the doctor assured her that she was about to make a similar visit to the other nurse to have this conversation. The doctor acknowledged the work again briefly, calmly but not effusively, and left the room. The whole interchange took around four minutes.
I was impressed that the doctor had remained within one kind of conversation, a conversation for appreciation, without buffering, prefacing or post scripting it. It was personal, professional and precise and delivered without any haste.
The nurse went about her work, humming and moving lightly on her toes with the corners of her mouth upturned.
6. Conversations not had
From the outset I made a decision not to talk to fellow patients. As I spent hours in waiting rooms, this was quite a challenge, but more challenging was being in the presence of so much suffering, and not being able to alleviate it. I knew as soon as I entered into conversation I would have the listening of a coach and would be using my energy to help where I could. I didn’t have any to spare. I had to concentrate on my own health and my recovery so that I could help others in the future. This was hard and confronting, but necessary.
7. Conversations not possible
There came a time during the chemotherapy when the bodily sensations of pain, nausea, weakness, frustration and brain fog became so all consuming that I lost the ability to speak to others in any meaningful way, or to make sense to myself. Not being able to observe or reflect on what was happening was quite frightening. This felt like a loss of self and taught me a new compassion for those who struggle with these experiences for extended periods.
8. Conversation for progress
The conversation with the oncologist who gave me the results of the final PET scan in December last year, seemed even more surreal than the original diagnosis. I found the adjustment to success, to a world where there was a future I could plan for, extraordinarily difficult. Each morning I awoke to a new discovery of not just what I might do, but that I might do, and relived all over again his matter of fact words; This is encouraging. The tumour is dissolved.
It took more than six weeks for me to really hear this news even though my intuition and internal scans had told me the same thing for some time. This was so unexpected. How many levels of emotion, language and somatic knowing must weave together before there is Acceptance and embodiment?
Linnet Hunter can be contacted at email@example.com
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