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Doing Cancer Her Way: Unpacking Kara's View of Western Medicine Pt 2

Disclaimer: To be honest, I am writing this series because it feels terrible to get through my day thinking everything would be "normal" if Kara had just seen a doctor sooner. One, no one knows that for sure, and two, the matter of when and whether one sees a physician is multilayered and complicated.


Within the healthcare field, efforts are being made to understand that last point better and communicate more authentically with populations that don't trust the medical system. But as valuable as these efforts will be, it doesn't mean that our loved ones will stop dying and leaving us grief-stricken. Not to sound like Captain Obvious here, but the universe is just too weird to allow for that.


Hopefully as one of the bereaved, I can find some healing in unpacking Kara's attitude toward Western medicine with the understanding that she is one of many people who have died and yet did their immeasurably best to live longer. And if you love someone who died of cancer like Kara, whether they shared some of her views or not, hopefully you can find a little healing here, too.


Survivor guilt is common among the bereaved, and in caregivers like myself. Unfortunately, the feeling only gets exacerbated by public discourse that either asserts or implies that making certain medical decisions guarantees a longer life. For example, you might have heard someone lament a loved one's death because the person got a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy. (My dad said as much when a dear friend died of breast cancer in her thirties.) But this omits a profound and disorienting truth eloquently described by Italo Calvino in his novel, Mr. Palomar:


"A model is by definition that in which nothing has to be changed, that which works perfectly; whereas reality, as we see clearly, does not work and constantly falls to pieces; so we must force it, more or less roughly, to assume the form of the model."


And when we do that, or at least if I do that, then I feel that I failed to help my wife live longer and am paying the price for my complacency. And even though I am quoting Calvino out of context, the truth still holds that we can do everything "correct" by whatever authority we hold highest and still not stick around much longer. Just ask my cousin Brian (via psychic medium, alas)... a non-smoker, he went into remission from lung cancer in 2008 and died of a brain tumor in 2010. Or, by contrast, my dad, who chain-smoked all his life but met his end before the age of 60, thanks to a speeding log truck.


As an aside, I am not saying you are a bad person if you have ever had these "If only..." thoughts or spoken them in public discourse. That would only be perpetuating more guilt around a difficult subject. Instead, I would like to suggest that if you do feel guilt over a loved one's death, perhaps you might find some small relief in acknowledging both the effectiveness of the model (Western medicine, in this case) and the effectiveness of reality as a thing that won't always adhere to it. This might even put less pressure on yourself for your own decisions about... anything. You choose your route, but there are a million ways to get knocked off course, and even permanently, at least from an earthly point of view.


That is what I have been telling myself lately, anyhow.


But anyway, back to Kara...


In 2000, she graduated from massage school and left office work to become a bodyworker. Early on, she learned that she wanted to focus on clients who would be proactive in their healing, as opposed to simply lying on her table every few weeks and expecting her to fix one pain or another (my mom drove her crazy in this regard). Co-founding a day spa during this period also taught her that she disliked it when people used massage as a sort of decadent way to spoil oneself for a few hundred bucks.


Speaking of this day spa, problems with her then-business partner led to a health crisis that she told me later, in her own words, might have killed her. Yet without seeing a doctor, she healed her issues through a holistic approach that included massage, acupuncture, and reiki, among other less categorizable treatments. And shortly after that crisis, when a fellow massage therapist gave her an unwanted "chiropractic" adjustment that fell completely outside their scope of practice, thereby causing her a years-long struggle with sciatica, she expanded her holistic approach to include light work and actual licensed chiropractic. And although some people might see this as bringing a knife to a gunfight, her hard work and patience in collaboration with these healers helped her recover from pain so acute at times that I would come upon her crawling on her belly in the hallway, sobbing and telling me, "Don't worry about me, I'll be all right..."


As far as why she didn't see a doctor during either crisis, not only had she been traumatized by medical mishandling in her teens, she had poor health insurance as a self-employed businessperson and didn't feel financially capable of getting involved in the medical system. For example, she panicked one time when I tried to call 9-1-1 because she had momentarily fainted in our living room. "We can't afford a trip to the emergency room, Charles." Anyway, that is how she saw her options for Western medicine in this country. And how she saw herself as someone who must find healing on other paths, both because it felt right and because she was good at it.


There is more to unpack in Kara's view of Western medicine and healing. I hope you will follow along, because although my wife is a truly unique and extraordinary human being, she is also not unlike others who have a somewhat complicated relationship to the medical system... a system that, to loop back to Italo Calvino, has come to figure in public discourse about health like one of Mr. Palomar's models.


Until next time.


--Charles Austin Muir

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