An existential approach to cancer

Jean Paul Sartre

‘I’ve finally squared it with the help of Jean-Paul Sartre.’ Photograph: David E. Scherman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

It is breast cancer awareness month. As someone with secondary breast cancer I am aware of the disease every day. Since I was diagnosed last August I’ve been in a muddle about how to square it mentally and emotionally. Although my treatment is working, nobody knows how long for.

Stage IV, secondary, advanced, metastatic, call it what you want, brings guilt and confusion about how best to be with and leave family and friends. Some may have a solution and put pressure on you to spend time at a clinic in Germany or source cannabis-related drugs or watch videos of people who have survived. I don’t understand how someone can know the cancer has pushed off for good until they die of something else.

And there is a lot aside from conventional medicines to help, including acupuncture, reflexology, cancer coaching, oxygen therapy, special diets with juices and no sugar, plus the rest. Online you can find miracle cures, along with clinics where you can spend time “cleaning up”. I’m not, however, a believer.

But existentialism resonates. It is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a philosophical theory emphasising the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining his or her own development”. Fortunately the hospital offered me an existential therapist. It’s taken almost a year to understand exactly what it means, but the penny has finally dropped. I don’t have to do what anyone else wants me to do, or worry about what they think when as an individual my experience is unique. I’ve finally squared it with the help of Jean-Paul Sartre, who said: “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
Aliya Hasan
Twickenham, London

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