Survival : a speech

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Survival: A Speech

By Jack Nichols

I delivered the following speech approximately twelve years ago at a Cancer Survivor's meeting at the Cocoa Beach Country Club on June 6, 1993. Happily, I'm still here to re-run the speech years later in 365gay.com

My name is Jack Nichols and I'm a cancer survivor. I'm honored to be here and I'm glad to be here too!

I've always been known as the house radical. The word "radical" has been besmirched by the popular culture. To be radical, according to the dictionary, is to go to the root. I think that the word "radish" may come from this word, and so if it makes you feel better you can call me a radish. If radicals scare you, rest easy because I've got only a few words to say.

I run counter to the mainstream, and I've never expected to be very popular. To a radical, the real fun lies in speaking his honest thoughts.

I'm an agnostic. A non-believer, a heretic, an infidel. Well, you say, an agnostic stands somewhere between belief in God and non-belief. I stand closer to non-belief. When I think about my own religious nature, about spiritual matters, I never include the Sky God in my picture. I'm a humanist, which is like being a spiritualized.

By saying this, I don't mean to denigrate anybody else's beliefs or anybody else's program for survival. I'm saying it mostly to get your attention. I want to map out an alternative route so you can take whatever you like from my thoughts and, possibly, add to your own. I don't expect you to agree with me and I don't expect you to believe me without question. I don't have the whole truth.

I'm a very lucky survivor. I noticed vividly when I was in the limiter flow room (what I call the "bubble room") getting a bone marrow transplant for the blood cancer I've had for eight years, that the humanistic views I've held for over 40 years have served me well enough.

The head nurse in the bone-marrow clinic at Moffitt Cancer Research Institute was quoted in Moffitt's quarterly publication talking about attitude. A good attitude, she insisted, helps if one hopes to survive. And she also said (if I may be permitted to boast just a little) that nobody had a better attitude than I.

During my visits to the clinic, both before and after the bone marrow operation, I noticed there were a goodly number of fellow patients who'd seemed to lose touch with their own personalities. They were just like bumps on a log. Some thumbed through copies of whatever scriptures they'd found most useful. GOOD! Good, if those scriptures worked. But for me, the scriptures were nothing more than the histories of certain Middle Eastern tribes. I had to have something else. I found that I could depend on the one person they say God helps most: the person who helps himself.

During the week that I got out of the bone marrow clinic I went into a participating doctor's office. His receptionist, seeing I was recuperating quickly, said, "You must have a very good friend up there." I replied: "Wrong direction."
Then I pointed to myself and said, "I have a very good friend right here."
Another receptionist in another doctor's office said, "You look awfully happy today. Who is making you so happy?"
I replied, "I am."


I wanted both of these receptionists to realize that for me the direction of one's focus is paramount. Most people try to lean on something outside of themselves, either their gods or their loved ones. But for me, in the last analysis, my focus has been on self. On self-care, on self-awareness, on self-scrutiny, on inner harmony.

Generally, people don't get religion until they're in a jam. Then they go miracle-hunting. Often, they're too late. I say that the time to start saving ones self is never too early. The program I recommend covers two aspects of the same material substance: mind and body.

When I was fifteen my Scottish grandfather gave me a book called As a Man Thinketh by James Allen. That book begins much as does the ancient Buddhist scripture, The Dhammapada. With the mind. With what is in the mind. "As we think in our hearts, so are we." It says we are literally what we think, our character, our attitudes, our feelings being the complete sum of our thoughts, of what we've allowed into our minds, of what we've absorbed.

It helps to be a radical. It helps because the popular culture is so much over-run with un-healthy thoughts. It helps to be able to stand aside from the popular culture and to carefully pick and choose the things with which we program our minds. A mind that program's itself, rather than allowing the culture to program it, has a better chance for survival.

The Buddhist scripture says: "We are what we think, having become what we thought," or, in another translation: "What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow. Our life is the creation of our mind."

There are many ways to pick and choose what we'll put into our minds. When I was fifteen I realized that one of those ways was music: records, songs, on the jukebox, songs on the radio. I didn't want to wallow in sadness. One's teen years are generally poignant enough as it is. I was determined to listen, to absorb only those songs that gave me a lift, which picked up my spirits, which widened my view. Perry Como had a song on every jukebox in those days. It was a sad song called "Prisoner of Love." The lyrics were bring-down. “Alone from night to night you'll find me too weak to break the chains that bind me.”

Those weren't words calculated to bring happiness. They were accompanied by a beautiful melody, no doubt, but the words themselves were the ravings of a mental masochist. I didn't want to wallow in unhappiness. I wanted to be happy.

When I got diagnosed with Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia at age 47, I decided I was going to take very good care of my body, diseased though it might be. I am now 55 years old. I've spent most of the last decade taking a few minutes out of each day to swim a few laps, to go every day to the nautilus gym. Not to over-do it exercising, but to keep myself trim and fit.

When I entered the "bubble room" to get my bone marrow transplant it was obvious I'd been indulging in self-care. I had extra energy. I had musculature. I was able to laugh: heartily. I had confidence. I wasn't focused on negatives. I knew I'd lived a life of which I could be proud. I knew my heart wouldn't give out on me. I knew I'd done what I could do to make the world a better place, to make those I'd cared for a bit happier. The famous 19th century agnostic orator, Robert G. Ingersoll, had influenced me early in life with these words:
The time to be happy is now.
The place to be happy is here.
The way to be happy is to make others so.

Some people said, "I'll pray for you," and I appreciated their thoughtfulness. But I also recalled what Ingersoll had said: "The hands that help are better far than lips that pray."
My doctor, Dr. Edward Knight of Rockledge, helped me. Today I want to thank him publicly for that help and I want to thank his magnificent staff too. I also want to thank my indefatigable friend, my great friend, my mother, Mrs. Mary Lund.

At Moffitt's Cancer Research Center I was released second soonest from the "bubble room" in Moffitt's history of 200 transplants. I was one of 2% who ate my meals in the "bubble room" all the way through the program. I laughed as I entered the "bubble room" and I laughed coming out 22 days later.

But how was this possible? Mainly to those of you who have cancer and to those who've survived it, I want to say just a few things - to make a few points.

Turn your attention away from externals-away from pie in the sky. If you believe in God, realize that God lives inside YOU, not outside - not up in the sky. Use each moment to care for yourself, your mind/body. Spend every minute free to you to take care of your inner reality.

I want you to develop true body consciousness. What is true body consciousness? My favorite poet, Walt Whitman - the poet of life affirmation -gives us a good hint. In the 19th century when our private parts were unmentionable, Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass: "I keep as delicate around the bowels as I do around the head and heart." That was revolutionary stuff in those days. It is revolutionary today!

Most people, because of our anti-body culture, a culture that teaches us that our bodies are the centers of corruption, turn away from such self-scrutiny.

But when you need it, if you treat your body well, your body may turn out to be an old friend to you. But even if it doesn't, even if it gives way to the power of disease, your good thoughts can still carry you - if you cultivate them -they can carry you to a laughing, proud ending.
I want to say that I do not believe in a god who punishes …Illness is not a punishment. Ingersoll put it in verse:

The simple truth is what we ask. Not the ideal;
We've set ourselves the noble task to find the real.
If all there is is not but dross, we want to know and bear our loss.
We will not willingly be fooled by fables nursed;
Our hearts, by earnest thought, are schooled to bear the worst;
And we can stand erect and dare all things, all facts that really are.
We have no god to serve or fear, no hell to shun,
No devil with malicious leer when life is done
An endless sleep may close our eyes, a sleep with neither dreams nor sighs.
We have no master on the land--No king in air--
Without a manacle we stand, without a prayer,
Without a fear of coming night, we seek the truth, we love the light.
We do not bow before a guess, a vague unknown;
A senseless force we do not bless in solemn tone.
When evil comes we do not curse or thank because it is no worse.
When cyclones rend--when lightning blights, 'Tis naught but fate;
There is no god of wrath who smites in heartless hate.
Behind the things that injure man there is no purpose, thought or plan.
We waste no time in useless dread, in trembling fear;
The present lives, the past is dead and we are here,
All welcome guests at life's great feast…

I repeat: Illness is no punishment. Don't punish yourself imagining that it is.

I would like to recommend this little book As a Man Thinks by James Allen. It is an updated, newly published version of the book my grandfather gave me when I was fifteen. I bought my copy at Waldenbooks. Its one of the oldest self-help or self-empowerment books in existence, over a century old. That is what I'm here to extol for you today: self-help and self-empowerment.


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“Survival : a speech,” Rainbow History Project Digital Collections, accessed June 12, 2024, https://archives.rainbowhistory.org/items/show/158.

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