Practicing in the face of cancer

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In April 2006, Venerable Thubten Chodron visited Qingxiu, a 21-year-old young woman from Singapore who was doing her Honors degree at university and who had just been diagnosed with leukemia. When they first met in Singapore General Hospital, Qingxiu sat up when Venerable entered, and when she saw Venerable’s shaved head, she took the scarf off her head, showed Venerable her bald head and smiled. She had been raised Buddhist and wanted to know more about Buddhist beliefs and practices. They discussed those and also Qingxiu’s feelings about having fallen ill quite suddenly and being told she had cancer. After Venerable returned to the US, they exchanged letters.

Venerable Chodron with Lin Qing Xiu

Venerable Thubten Chodron with Qing Xiu in October 2006, after a successful bone marrow transplant.

Letter from Qing Xiu, May 2006

I’m now writing to you from the hospital; it is my third chemotherapy so far. I pray day and night for strength and faith to move on in this journey. Dearest Venerable Thubten Chodron, thank you for your precious visit during my second chemo. Since then I have learnt to practice showing love and kindness to people around me. I have discovered that rather than focusing on myself and my own self-centered condition, there is much more happiness gained when I try to direct my smiles and concern outward to people around me. It makes me feel less sour about my ills.

I will keep the five lay precepts in mind and put the Buddha’s teachings into thought and practice. So far I fall short of these precepts, but I will work at them with faith and right effort. I am very thankful and feel it was due to my good karma that I had the precious opportunity to share my fears and deepest worries about my illness with you. Thank you for your kindness, compassion, and patience. Thank you for encouraging me not to resort to self-blame or to thinking, "This is so unfair!" Thank you for reminding me and showing me the avenue of peace and happiness via loving-kindness to others, including those I find difficult to love and care for.

I’ll be a tough, strong girl, so please do not worry about me. I have come to accept my sickness as a blessing to help others and myself to live more lovingly and compassionately. My next step of treatment is bone marrow transplant and the success rate is never certain, but that’s life, right? The reality of the future is always uncertain so why even start fearing the uncertain? I will, in fact, use all my "free time" to seek out the beauty of life by being thankful for all that I already have and by relying on my personal experience to help other patients like me find hope even when they may think there’s no way.

Letter from Qing Xiu, July 2006

Venerable Thubten Chodron asked Qing Xiu if she could share what she had written above with others. When Qing Xiu wrote back to say, "Yes," she added:

Things were quite "windy" a while ago, but have since settled down. Good and bad things come in a cycle, just as pain and sickness also come and go. The nature of all things is that they too will pass.

There are a few more things I would like to share with others who are cancer patients:

  1. Try to understand what you fear is when you’ve received a diagnosis of cancer.
  2. Accept your cancer and recognize the fact that it is here to stay for a while before it goes away after many, many chemos.
  3. So what if chemo brings with it side effects of all degrees! That is because our body is in a situation where it needs help from the doctor, the nurses, and the medicines. Why create more fear and add to the physical stress of your body when, as a patient, all you can do is trust the doctor, trust the advances of medical science, and most importantly trust in the Buddha. So please trust that through chanting and sincere prayers your physical pain will pass over time.
  4. As a patient it helps to recall that when you are diagnosed with cancer, you are not the only one suffering due to cancer. All your loved ones are also implicated and will suffer indirectly from it too. By accepting the cancer, you will learn with time to love and treasure every part of your healthy body which you may have been dissatisfied with earlier. You will also learn to reciprocate and repay the kindness of your caregivers and loved ones by bravely coming to terms with the illness and emerging with a big smile because you know that all negative karma and suffering will end one day.

I have chosen to look at this illness as an opportunity to rest more as compared to how a 21-year-old healthy college graduate is defined by society—someone who is actively seeking worldly desires in delusion. Being sick now has given me a spiritual, holistic opportunity to reassess my life goals. As long as I am still living, regardless of my sickness, I can still be useful. I can still make even the slightest effort to bring joy, smiles, and loving-kindness to the other patients around me, to the nurses serving me, to the doctors and family caregivers. It is this power of love I feel around me. This awareness that these very people who shower care on me can in return receive my smiles and joy transforms my mind. This state of thankfulness has been a driving force that has kept me going despite the setbacks of the chemo.

I have tried challenging my own fears of having to jab myself with needles for a special injection I must have to boost my low white blood cell count. I have tried administering the injection myself by using the visualizations you told me to do when I took other medicines. I imagine Guan Yin (Chenrezig) or Medicine Buddha blessing the injection or chemo, transforming it into healing nectar that flows into my body, purifying negative karma, blessing my mind, and boosting my bone marrow. I also affirm to myself that this is the right medicine to help me help my body recover. When I breathe in, I mindfully think, "Inhale all the fresh air and oxygen." When I breathe out, I think, "Out with the stress and fears." It works! My fear is overcome.

I’ll be going for the bone marrow transplant soon. It has its own set of risks, but it is also the most hopeful solution that the doctors can offer now. I will bear in mind your advice to imagine Kuan Yin and the Medicine Buddha by my side during the bone marrow transplant. I will keep my smiles and good mental energy and chant every morning and evening. If in pain, I will chant their mantras and imagine Guan Yin and Medicine Buddha giving me the strength to accept the pain and to allow the pain to come and go away with time. I will also remember to be kind to the people around me. May all the beings around me, both the seen and the unseen, be well and happy.

I don’t know what will happen during the transplant, but I will always be grateful to have met you this lifetime.

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