The words in the email stared back at me silently as I wrapped my mind around their meaning. They were delivered with no emotion, offering no reaction to my receipt. They were just words, serving their purpose, delivering their message.
“Please let us know that you received this. Also please note that this is a skin cancer that will need treatment.”
The house was quiet, still dark as the sun was just making its way over the mountains to finally spill into the valley. Ale had already left for work, and I was alone. I opened the path report that was attached, sent from my dermatologist in the States, read the diagnosis, and sat back pondering what I should do next.
I guess I wasn’t really surprised, when I had originally noticed the pinkish spot that didn’t go away, I knew what it could be; and when I saw the dermatologist during a quick visit to the USA, he seemed pretty concerned. However, in all my years traveling and living abroad, I never had to face a medical issue in a foreign country. I never had to imagine the possibility of working with doctors and hospitals who didn’t speak my native language before I was fluent in theirs. I didn’t really know where to begin, sitting at home alone with no doctor in front of me to answer my questions; so I began with Google. And what was my first question?
“Cómo se dice cancer en español”.
As I typed the question into the Google search, I felt about as helpless as a lost child all alone in a new city. And finding out it was simply “cáncer” somehow made it worse. It was kind of a bizarre moment that sums up the essence of leaving the comforts of your home country. Being self-reliant, confident and independent have been attributes I’ve always celebrated about myself; but in that moment, my independence and self-reliance felt so insignificant.
Learning to communicate in Spanish and have general conversations is one thing, but being able to find and talk about cancer treatment here in Chile is an entirely different kind of beast. However, as I learned more about my diagnosis and options, I actually found myself continuously reassured by gratitude, rather than fear.
First, my diagnosis was Basal Cell Carcinoma– a very common form of skin cancer (in fact, the most common form of all cancers), and one of the easiest to cure. As I learned more about this type of cancer and the available treatments, it was reassuring to know that the risks associated with it were not life threatening, and that treatment should be pretty straightforward.
Second, I have with me my incredibly handsome, intelligent and reassuring husband who also happens to speak Spanish as a first language. Although I have always managed my medical issues for myself, being able to lean on my husband now to help me find the right clinic, get the right doctors, ask and translate the questions and answers has saved me so much stress and confusion. It is humbling to really need someone when you are in a vulnerable position, but it is also empowering when you see your individual strengths and weaknesses collectively supporting one another.
Third, I am living in a country with a great medical system and have easy access to excellent doctors- even in our tiny little town in southern Chile (much to my surprise). To top that off, I have friends here who were quick to offer recommendations of trusted clinics and contacts of doctors who had treated other friends. It is a gift to live somewhere with access to great healthcare that is also extremely affordable. This fact is not lost to me when I think of so many loved ones in the USA who are buried under medical expenses associated with any type of cancer diagnosis. Part of me also cringes at the fact that this will now be in my medical history and if I do move back to the USA someday, I’ll have to contend with the discrimination of insurance companies there.
The helplessness that I originally felt when I received the diagnosis shifted entirely when I began my treatment. My experience working with the doctors and hospitals here in Chile was so incredibly different compared to every experience I’ve had with hospitals and insurance companies in the USA- even with the language barrier. The feeling that was embracing me all along the way was one of sincere kindness. And that simple kindness really did make the whole process of having a piece of me cut out that much easier. The abundance of gratitude, just kept flowing.
Throughout this process, one thing has really struck me- and it is something I hadn’t really expected. From the time I received the diagnosis, to the process of learning more about this type of cancer and discussing it with my doctor, all along the way I realized that somehow cancer has become kind of a “normal” thing in my generation. I remember this being different when I was a kid, when losing someone to cancer was a rare shock.
However, at the age of 31, I wasn’t entirely shocked that it happened to me. I have friends my own age and younger who have fought battles with many different types and stages of cancer. I know of young families who have had to deal with the devastation of a child being diagnosed with cancer. I have lost friends and family members to cancer. Without necessary rhyme or reason, these days cancer affects nearly everyone I know in some way or another.
Although some cancers have specific and direct causes, many are still hard to pin down. Personally, I believe that the environments we have constructed in our maddening pursuit of a consumer-driven, industrialized society are huge contributors. We are of this Earth; and in our time on this Earth, humans have radically altered the environment in which we exist. Much of this alteration has been done with blatant disregard for the impacts on our Earth, directly threatening our own ability to continue thriving on this planet, of which we come from. We cannot damage this Earth without directly damaging ourselves. We must be stewards, not pillagers. It is our own health and the health of our children that we rob when we damage the ecosystems we live within.
As I’ve been healing, I’ve spent a lot of time retreating to the wild places that surround my home in southern Chile. I’ve spent quiet time sitting atop mossy fallen trees that lie strewn beside waterfalls. I’ve climbed mountains that toyed with stealing my breath as I struggled up their steep inclines, only to have that breath taken away entirely when reaching to top and standing in awe of the view before me. I’ve sat quietly inside the trunk of a living Coigue tree, feeling as though I was sitting in the warm embrace of a womb. I have felt every single cell in my body rejoice as a warm breeze, the first sign of the coming spring, twisted my hair, and the smell of rain falling in a dense forest filled my nostrils.
So what can be done? How can we as individuals slow the progress of this degrading industrialized system? We can begin by demanding transparent information about the contents of the things we buy, and the manner in which they are produced. From the food we eat to the products we wear and use to adorn our homes, information is power, and the more we know about what chemicals and toxins are involved in producing the goods we consume, the more control we have when it comes to limiting our exposure. And, perhaps more importantly, this allows us to begin the conversation with the companies manufacturing these goods. It is up to us to hold them accountable- it is up to us to demand this information, this level of transparency, and to demand products that do not inflict harm on this Earth and our own bodies. If we do not require it, the things we buy will continue to be made with a focus only on higher profits and lower costs- at the expense of our health, our environment, and the health and vibrance of the people and communities who make the things we buy.
The Environmental Working Group has been publishing reports on chemical and toxin transparency for years- and their reports are hugely helpful to any consumer trying to navigate the barrage of “natural” and “eco” labels out there today. The latest Cancer Prevention Edition landed in my inbox the morning after I had surgery to remove my skin cancer. The irony of it is not lost to me, which is why I felt so motivated to share my little story, and take some time to speak up in the hope that others consider doing so as well. You can also join the conversation by checking out the Just Label It campaign working to demand greater transparency in the USA food supply. Together, we can find a better way.