How surviving cancer helps me cope with the climate crisis

Australia’s bushfires have left grief on our doorstep. As a cancer survivor, I too have been through the flames.

Cancer and climate crisis - Katerina Cosgrove - DO NOT USE
Katerina's property after Australia's bushfires, which have burned through at least 6.3 million hectares of land this season [Photo courtesy of Katerina Cosgrove]

Since the bushfires came through my property and the national park behind it, I wake most mornings with a sharp stone lodged in my throat. Before I am fully conscious, my grief is amorphous, hard to pin down. Then I hear my beloved bees in the native banksias beneath my window, their low hum in the few flowers that have survived.

King parrots, kookaburras and lorikeets have come back to burned trees after the fires. Mobs of kangaroos have returned to graze in my garden at twilight. They bring their joeys, standing up near their mothers, breastfeeding for hours under my gaze. Tender green shoots spring up at my feet. The twisted, blackened trunks of trees suddenly give way to fresh green leaves so intense they hurt my eyes.

This resurgence of life, this regeneration of soil and leaf and flower, is mirrored in me. I too have been through the flames. I too have survived.

My older sister died of cancer, a year to the month after I was diagnosed with the same disease. We were born on the same day eight years apart and shared many parallels: Early marriages, a chronic illness, the metastatic melanoma that would eventually kill her.

My survival and her death taught me about going through fire and coming out the other side. They give me some insight into fear, anguish, pain and rage.

You see, my personal story is intertwined with this land I love, this fragile ecosystem that should never have been colonised by Europeans. It is woven with heartbreak and despair, dry reeds and grasses, some charred, some verdant, and interlaced with my own guilt and complicity. This is what we have all done to Australia. This is what we have done to my small patch of paradise, my biosphere, the entire planet.

Cancer and climate crisis - Katerina Cosgrove - DO NOT USE
‘This resurgence of life, this regeneration of soil and leaf and flower, is mirrored in me. I too have been through the flames. I too have survived,’ the writer says  [Photo courtesy of Katerina Cosgrove]

The fires raging through Australia began in the coastal Queensland hinterland where I live. It was the driest spring in living memory. Neighbours who have lived here for 40 years tell me the ferocity of our fire was unprecedented. In November, the national park behind our house began to burn. When we evacuated, spot fires, fanned by flaming embers, appeared on our lawn. A freight train roar, chasing us, pushing reddish-black smoke into our lungs and eyes.

We fully expected to lose our beautiful, off-grid home on two hectares (five acres), but it was saved by the efforts of volunteer firefighters over three harrowing days and nights. When we came back, the once-lush paperbarks and eucalypts lining our driveway, our herb garden and citrus trees, our fences and rainwater tanks, our clothesline, were singed, scorched, dead. Devastation. Our compost bins were mounds of melted plastic.

But this is not what saddens me most. More than 500 million animals have been affected: Koalas, kangaroos, pythons, bats and the plethora of insects and birds in my back yard among them. We are in climate catastrophe, with 6.3 million hectares (15.6 million acres) already burned. Our biodiversity, our world-famous and symbolic flora and fauna, even our wet rainforests, are burning. Australia will continue to suffer, year after year, if our so-called leaders do nothing to mitigate the effects of this climate crisis.

Cancer and climate crisis - Katerina Cosgrove - DO NOT USE
Katerina’s property as bushfires nearly engulf her home [Photo courtesy of Katerina Cosgrove]

My cancer diagnosis has given me a useful metaphor here. It has allowed to me to live – perhaps not comfortably – with this potent mix of dread and freedom, and to move – however clumsily – into a lightness which counterpoints the dark. It has helped me to immerse myself in climate science, and not shy away from the worst-case predictions of collapse. It has given me the strength and context to deal with the fires and with the reality of climate catastrophe in mine and my child’s lifetime. 

Through my personal survival, I have understood how to take joy in the small, often overlooked details of daily life, to be grateful, to practice patience and stillness, and to accept the cyclical inevitability of loss and death, not only for me and the people I love, but for all plants and creatures and the entire natural world.

The stages of a cancer diagnosis are remarkably similar to the stages of coming to terms with the impacts – both personal and global – of climate change.

First, there is the shock and resulting numbness. Then there is the busy, frenetically productive “coping mode”. In the case of cancer, doctor’s visits, dietary changes, heightened energy, disturbed sleep. In the case of climate crisis; planting trees, growing food, harvesting precious water, trying to be self-sufficient, educating yourself.

Then comes overwhelm, denial and self-protection (“there’s nothing I can do, the problem is too big, I give up”) and eventually deep sorrow and breakdown; losing trust in your body and your self. Losing trust in the planet’s capacity to nurture and heal. A sick body, a sick biome.

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Katerina while being treated for cancer, with her daughter [Photo courtesy of Katerina Cosgrove]

Eventually, slowly, over months and years, we can come out the other side into quiet integration, moments of happiness, even peace.

The fires have the capacity to transform me in the same way my cancer did. They have the power to transform all of us. To literally turn over a new leaf. To watch the old leaves, our old ideas, our outdated notions, our prejudices and stubbornness and denial, our refusal to see the error of our ways, our disregard for the truth, blister and sputter and reduce to ash. To witness their metamorphosis.

These fires can act as a wake-up call to Australians and the world; they can temper and purify us in their intensity – or they will destroy us.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Source: Al Jazeera