Anthrow Circus

MicroView: What the Pain Protects

Photo by Armon Means.


In June 2019, at the age of 43, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. I underwent colon resection surgery and eight months of chemotherapy, and was then declared “cancer free” in the early spring of 2020.

But then that May, I went to the hospital with abdominal pain. Prior to being told my gallbladder needed to be removed, I was informed that the CT scan showed potentially cancerous lesions in my liver and lung. Subsequent tests, including a biopsy, confirmed that there were small (5mm or so) tumors in my liver, my left lung, and a bit larger one on the outside of my colon at the resection point. I began more chemotherapy, including a monoclonal antibody that had demonstrated great success in other people with metastatic colon cancer. I also went 90% vegetarian, began taking supplements that had demonstrated usefulness in slowing or preventing cancer growth, and started engaging in practices to improve my spiritual condition, as cancer—like many diseases—is a systemic condition, not just a singularity. 

Nearly a year later, everything seems to be trending in a good direction. The tumors in my liver have resolved for now, as has the tumor in my lung, and the tumor on my colon has had a “nearly complete response” to treatment, as the report says. I still have chemotherapy every other week and am told I will likely be on some kind of maintenance therapy indefinitely. Not exactly the kind of news a person looks forward to hearing, but I maintain as much hope as I can.

Somewhat luckily for me, cancer isn’t the first chronic condition I’ve had to live with. A little more than four years ago, I put down my last drink of alcohol and never looked back. I firmly believe that recovery from alcoholism or other addiction is possible, and that, to be done well, it requires a considerable amount of work—not just to not pick up another drink, but to get to a point where drinking or using simply isn’t appealing or interesting.

My life has been enriched greatly by sobriety, and drinking just seems boring to me now.

People ask me sometimes, “How do you do it?”—in reference to cancer treatments, and sometimes regarding the past four years of sobriety. Apparently, I sometimes make life look easy, though I assure you that it is not.

I’ve always struggled with how to respond, because while much of this road has been rough, I do think anyone can do it. I’m not that unique. Last week, while watching the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico, I unexpectedly found a way to express my experience.

In one scene, a Mexican soldier who has worked for the cartel is being tortured for information, and he makes this statement: “The trick to overcoming torture is not to think about the pain itself, but what it protects.”

Whether I am two days into a chemo fog, or eating oatmeal or some other plant food for the millionth time, or swallowing the 80th vitamin or supplement of the day, or forcing myself to meditate or exercise, or even overcoming the urge to drown all of it in bourbon or beer, it’s all the same: I think about what the pain protects.

The pain protects my life. It protects my family and my friends. It protects the things I’ve devoted my life to. And all of that gives pain purpose, which makes it valuable.

I hope that, whatever pain you might have in your life today, you are able to see what that pain might be protecting, and that you might find peace in that.

Pete Sherry grew up in rural Kentucky, but moved to the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area during college. Following decades of formal education that he firmly believes should have been wasted on someone else, he served as a pastor, and later as a therapist. After many years spent in riotous living, he is profoundly grateful for the opportunity to have a quiet life spent in recovery and repentance, building guitars, loving his family, and living every moment fully aware and awake.

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