Editor’s note: Aimee Prasek, a graduate student at the College of St. Catherine, is an Edge Life intern this fall. She brings a diverse writing perspective to her passion for holistic health promotion. Look for the conclusion of Aimee’s three-part series in the January edition of Edge Life.
There are few people who can captivate an audience every time they speak. Often, these intriguing people communicate with humbleness, they tell dynamic stories and they share deep wisdom. I interviewed Carleton Peterson, a man who exemplifies these abilities, about his journey with cancer.
Carleton, share with me your diagnosis and journey through cancer treatments.
Carleton Peterson: In 2004, when I had a diagnosis of malignancy in my parotid gland [largest of the salivary glands], I tapped in very quickly to a journey with cancer that was at least 30 years older than that. Much of what happened between 1975 and 1980, when my first wife was diagnosed with cancer until she died, came back again to inform, motivate and illumine my own experience.
After radiation and surgery, doctors believed Carleton’s cancer was in remission. In 2006, Carleton was informed that the adenocarcinoma had metastasized to his ribs, pelvis and liver and that he also had prostate cancer.
CP:There was a relentless progression that was showing itself. But, I was very reluctant to move into chemotherapy. That was a little disconcerting to my medical oncologist, who wanted to treat aggressively. When it’s a life-and-death matter, the oncologists don’t want you to pass up windows of opportunity. This is important, but for me, not as important as working together and sensing that we’re trying to make discoveries and trying to discern. Ultimately, I’m responsible. You can give me all the reasons you have on why I should take a course of action, but you gotta give me the freedom to not take it.
Thirty years ago, Carleton’s wife used treatments like laetrile, acupuncture and immunotherapy for her cancer. Acupuncture and specific types of immunotherapy are now backed by research, but laetrile remains controversial. Most likely, the key ingredient of laetrile is cyanide from apricot pits (and other fruit pits, raw nuts and plants). Carleton hasn’t used laetrile, but he has explored many alternative treatments. This exploration may have been encouraged when his doctor informed him that chemo would have no affect on his cancer. Yet, chemo was still encouraged. Carleton was given the choice to resign to this bleak diagnosis and the side effects of chemo or to create his own path for healing.
CP:Based on my experiences with my first wife, I had an inclination to be open to other traditions and medical treatments. I am doing things like acupuncture, chiropractic, healing touch, herbal treatments and juices. Additionally, I created support systems for myself. In 2004, a friend and I called together what we named, "healing circles." Once a month, we’d invite people, and we would deal with questions that arose as a result of this cancer in my life. One time we talked about redefining normal. When you get the diagnosis of cancer, all of sudden you redefine normal.
With his new diagnosis in 2006, Carleton gathered a second group of people to help him sort through the complexities of complementary treatments for his cancer.
CP:I could tell that I needed people around me to process with, think with, pray with, laugh with, give me advice and to remind me what life is all about. I wanted them to help me be a steward of whatever health I had left.
Carleton also made the following request of the group.
CP:I want you to tell me stories of healing. I want you to tell those stories, because stories bring life and they bring hope. Also, what could we do, because we’re thinking about this, to benefit a wider group of people?
What have been the greater implications?
CP:All of these things end up being connected, and there is this wonderful theme that is playing through all this. And you wonder how life is going unbeknownst to us. It’s a whole lot bigger than I am. It brings me back around to silence-and I just sort of smile. There’s a lot going on and it makes my living and my dying inconsequential. Yet, in the same sense, I want to say that my living or dying is of utmost consequence. That’s another way I’m working this whole thing out. It can only be understood in paradox. There are these seemingly opposite things that the more you examine them, they are exactly the same thing. So you have this dreadful, hurtful disease that is this wonderful, binding, connecting circumstance. It’s good and evil, it’s light and darkness.
How has cancer affected you spiritually?
CP:I’m an incurably religious person. My notion of what it means to be religious has been in a constant state of flux from the time I was young. I grew up in a branch of Christianity that saw itself as the only true way of being Christian. Now, there’s strength in that. We hope that everybody has tenacity in what they believe.
But, through my life I’ve had experience after experience that has broadened that. I think the best place to explore other religions and how religion works in the universe is to do it from a place where you understand your own rootedness. I don’t find myself running out to every other religious tradition asking, "What can this teach me about cancer?" If I can learn from that, fine. But I find there is a satisfaction in the tradition that I have, to nurture and serve me and to also let me use a given language to express how life is working. Here is where I am rooted. Here is where I structure my hope, where I order my life.
I found it interesting that Carleton was using the words religion and spirituality interchangeably. Often, these words are pitted against one another and defined by their differences. Carleton revealed an opportunity to see the intrinsic similarities within these concepts.
CP: I love what the word religion means. It’s comes from the Latin verb ligo, which means to connect. If a religious person is reconnected, I want to be a religious person. I want to be reconnected to my deepest self-whatever my self is. I want to be reconnected to God-whoever God is. I want to be reconnected to other people. I want to be reconnected to other groups. How does one reconnect to their deepest self-and reconnect deeply? I’m asking that question of cancer, as well. How can I connect with people who have cancer? How does cancer help me connect to myself? How can I be authentic and have integrity and a sense of unity in the diversity of my own being?
Once again, the paradox of cancer comes alive. Amidst the fear, pain and separation from physical health, Carleton has found himself reconnected. The complexities of his cancer reveal the simplicity of his true desire for healing-to rediscover the connections to things greater than himself.
Carleton is completing a book that describes the treatments and support circles that have contributed to his healing. Certainly, through his book, many more sacred connections will be made. I invite you to continue sharing in these experiences of cancer by following Klink Weisen’s story in the January issue of Edge Life.