“Elves and Dragons, I says to him. Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you.
Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters,
or you’ll land in trouble too big for you.”
~The Gaffer (Tolkien 24)
When first hearing the word cancer, I had a very particular image form immediately in my mind; ugly images of an emaciated version of myself with sunken eyes, pallid skin, and no hair. Despite evidence to the contrary, society has helped me to develop a strong paradigm when it comes to cancer and the havoc the ensuing treatment unleashes. In most instances, I automatically assumed that as a result of the diagnosis I had been sentenced to die a slow, horrific death. But what if this is not always true? What if there are forms of cancer that defy what society claims as truth? I have discovered that the form of cancer I have, neuroendocrine (NET) cancer, does not fit the socially accepted paradigm; in fact, it seems to defy the cancer paradigm and more aptly fits the criteria of a chronic illness with a deadly twist.
When I was given the diagnosis of metastatic neuroendocrine carcinoma of the liver, my mind immediately went to those legends that surround the diagnosis and I formed expectations regarding my condition. Now, after eighteen months of treatment, I find myself trying to establish a new paradigm in which to approach this disease. I am not going to be facing rounds of chemotherapy and invasive surgeries with the hope of being declared cancer free.
I have discovered that the form of cancer I have, neuroendocrine (NET) cancer, does not fit the socially accepted paradigm; in fact, it seems to defy the cancer paradigm and more aptly fits the criteria of a chronic illness with a deadly twist.
Instead, I have been facing monthly injections, scans, constant blood work, and consultations with specialists all with the hopes of determining if and when surgical intervention is even possible. Life, for the moment, has been put on hold as my doctor tries, through this myriad of testing, to decide if he can safely go after the tumors in the liver without them “getting angry” and releasing potentially deadly levels of serotonin into my system. After a year of diagnostics, it was determined the most conservative course would be radiation therapy; a course of treatment that has proved to provide only temporary relief. This is not what I expected to have to face when I was diagnosed and the waiting is beginning to take it’s toll on my mental health and well-being.
Across America, there are thousands of individuals who suffer in silence with a disease that defies all expectations. On the outside, sufferers of chronic illness look healthy; but inside, unseen, these people are fighting a constant battle against their bodies in a desperate attempt to live normal lives. Chronic health conditions do not fit the stereotypes of illness; in fact, those who hold on to the socially constructed paradigms of illness can, unknowingly, offer hurtful advice, make emotionally traumatizing comments, and even levy harsh judgment and condemnation on those who are struggling under enormous physical/emotional burdens. While the list of chronic, invisible illnesses is too extensive to list, these conditions are very real. Those who suffer from these illnesses are in an epic battle against the body, a battle that ebbs and flows, is incredibly unpredictable, and takes just about everything a person has to put up a continual fight. Life with chronic illness is difficult enough without having to face judgment, even condemnation, from others. Those fighting these battles need a hero to rally around, gain useful battle techniques, and form a camaraderie to cheer one another on through the inevitable ups and downs.
As I have struggled to come to terms with my own chronic condition, several questions began emerge that required my close attention. The first, and most crucial for me, was what happens when my own illness fails to meet my own stereotypes and how do I escape the prison of my own judgment in regard to this disease.
What happens when my illness fails to meet my own stereotypes and how do I escape the prison of my own judgment in regard to this disease?
The second question I faced was how to reconstruct the pieces of my life based on this unfamiliar paradigm. The answers to these crucial questions have materialized from an incredibly unlikely source. I had recently decided to revisit a cherished novel, the Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien, and several answers began to pop out at me immediately. By looking closely at the lives of these characters, I have been able to form a new paradigm and a new set of expectations for both living with and managing a chronic, invisible illness.
The best advice, in my opinion, comes from the Gaffer. After listening to those around him speculate on events in which they have very little knowledge, he tells them:
“Elves and dragons…Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you” (Tolkien 24).
Legend always sounds so much better than reality. I have spent countless days of my life dreaming of the impossible to the neglect of what is real and it has, more times than not, gotten me into serious trouble. I tend to find myself getting caught up in the romance of a situation; I look for the wild, the unexpected; something, anything that will wipe away the mundane and sweep me away on an exciting new adventure where I can slay dragons and be the hero of my very own fairy tale. Cancer became a romance of sorts, providing me with my very own dragon and I set myself to learning all I could about this mythical beast to the neglect of the reality that was right under my nose.
When it comes to chronic illness, there are so many theories, alleged “miracle” cures, and a plethora of expert advice on the Internet, all vying for attention. This information can become the stuff of legend and begin to form a socially accepted paradigm in regard to chronic illness.
Cancer became a romance of sorts, providing me with my very own dragon and I set myself to learning all I could about this mythical beast to the neglect of the reality that was right under my nose.
It is this information that can be equated with the Gaffer’s “elves and dragons”. Those suffering with illness know intimately the “cabbages and potatoes” of their condition. Knowing what constitutes the elves and dragons versus the cabbage and potatoes is crucial in managing illness. Take stock in the knowledge gained through doctors, medical professionals, and how the body is responding to illness; stick closely to the cabbages and potatoes, for the elves and dragons bring with them many terrible sorrows.
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Fellowship of the Ring: being the first part of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Boston: Houghton. 1994. Print.