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Why I Stopped Talking

Tuesday, April 21, 2020
Martina Reaves[NCSD guest blog post by Martina Reaves]

I was minding my own business when a little chancre sore popped up on my tongue. Nothing unusual for me, really. But then it didn’t go away. When I saw my doctor for another reason, I pointed it out to her.

“Have your dentist check it,” she said.

“I think you need a biopsy,” my dentist said.

She sent me to an oral surgeon who took a bit out of my tongue and sent it to the University of California, San Francisco. I had tongue cancer. After one-sixth of my tongue was cut out a few weeks later, I had two weeks during which I couldn’t talk at all. I was surprised to find that not talking was actually glorious. I realized how many words just fill the air, how much talking is so unnecessary. Two surgeries later, I became practiced at not talking.

After a year, following three head and neck surgeries and six weeks of radiation, the cancer returned. I was given a terminal diagnosis. I learned only later that I had less than one percent chance of survival. It would have been great to know that there was a little sliver of hope at the beginning of the odyssey.

All my friends and colleagues were full of questions and wanted to talk about my prognosis. We’d sit together in a frenzy of intimate focus on my health. As far as I could tell, talking about it all the time increased everyone’s anxiety, including mine. And it got completely boring to answer the same questions over and over.

Eventually, a spiritual teacher gave me this advice, the best advice I had received on my three-year journey, “Don’t talk about the cancer. Don’t spend all your time thinking about it. You are more than your cancer. Live your life. When your mind starts to worry, gently say, Worry mind, STOP. Try it. You’ll see that it helps.”

Training my mind worked.

I felt free from all the focus on my health. Still, there were other people to deal with, so I wrote monthly emails to my “cancer list” with updates on my status. I reminded them that I didn’t want to talk about cancer when we were together. I was surprised that this request was difficult for most people, but I gently enforced it.

Over time, the cancer disappeared. My oncologist couldn’t point to a reason why.

“You’ll have to keep doing all the things you’ve been doing, because we don’t know what worked,” he said. “If you’ve stood on your head every day for the last year, you’ll have to keep doing it.”

He wanted a list of all the strange things I did while ill, in addition to the chemotherapy he had prescribed (chemotherapy that was only supposed to give me more time). I didn’t tell him everything, knowing he’d roll his eyes at the spiritual advice, but I listed the yoga, herbs, supplements, meditation, writing, reading, and acupuncture.

Now here I am in 2020, alive and well, almost eleven years after my last chemo treatment. And I still talk less than I did before I had cancer.

Martina Reaves lives in Berkeley, California, with her wife of almost forty years. A former attorney/mediator, she has focused on writing since 2007. Her memoir, I’m Still Here, is being published by She Writes Press in April 2020. She has just completed her second memoir, Ebb & Flow, a compilation of flash memoirs. Visit her website at www.martinareaves.com.