Group of adult males in the ocean watching a wetlands fire from afar. There is smoke in the sky and ashes falling due to the fire.

The Power of Community

Not long ago I flew to an island in the Caribbean. Like most people, I needed a getaway from the stressors of daily life. The vacation promptly began with chatter amongst the other lively guests staying at the same resort. As a pelvic floor physical therapist, it is common that when people find out what it is that I do for work, all manner of questions and inquiries are presented wherever I go. This could happen at a dinner party, the grocery store or in this particular case, while on vacation.

Throughout this week by the Caribbean Sea, many women approached me for advice on how to manage dyspareunia (pain with sex), lack of vaginal lubrication after menopause, occasional urinary leakage with sneezing, etc. You get the idea. It is par for the course that women are open about their pelvic concerns, whereas men are often more tight-lipped. Yet there was something about the warm water of the sea on this particular week that provided a gentle nudge to the men to open up as well.

Talking to men about prostate worries

Three men sought me out privately for their own prostate worries. One guy had had a prostatectomy, which I already knew from the tell-tale constellation of scars on his abdomen above his swimming trunks. Another fellow spoke of his road through radiation to treat prostate cancer and how grateful he was to be free of cancer. And a third had a rising PSA and was awaiting biopsy to see if there were cancer cells in his prostate.

The week wore on with sunshine, the occasional rainstorm, mai tais, swimming by day, dancing after dinner, and the kind of deep sleep that one only finds on vacation. It wasn’t until the fifth day on this trip that something unusual occurred.

An unexpected event

A large group of us were floating neck deep in the ocean like plankton when a fire began a few miles away on the land across the water. It started small, but quickly began to grow in size. At first we suspected it was a controlled burn to manage the overgrowth of the forest. But one man who worked at the resort reported that the fire was actually coming from the morass. I had never heard of a morass, so I asked him to explain. “The morass is our wetlands on the island,” the worker explained. “Sometimes the morass gets so hot from the sun that it creates marsh gas, which ignites and causes the fire you see across the water.”

I did more research and discovered that unlike a controlled burn, which helps vegetation and manages the soil to prevent future wildfires, a morass fire is actually harmful to the ecosystem and to tourism on this particular island. And as the fire continued to burn, its ashes began to drift across the sea and fell upon the gathering of people as we swam in the ocean.

It wasn’t supposed to be beautiful. This fire ravaged dangerously across the water, on land that wasn’t inhabited (thank goodness)! But there was something shockingly beautiful about ashes falling on our shoulders and wet heads as we bobbed in salt water. It was a startling reminder of the cycle of death and rebirth, of destruction versus new life, of the inherently opposing elements of fire versus water.

An analogy to cancer

This duality in nature seemed an apt analogy to cancer. If cancer cells were the morass on fire, storming through the body in the attempt to destroy it, the sea water was the radiation, the surgical removal, the chemotherapy, the fight against the raging flames of cancer. The morass can spontaneously combust, much as it was on this vacation holiday; yet the sea can quell the scorching fire and absorb the ashes of such annihilation.

It was on this afternoon that we realized, as a collective of vacationers, how much we had in common. Some of us had battled cancer, some of us were just starting the fight, and some of us had cancer cells within us which one day might set out to destroy us in the future. But we were together as we witnessed this war within nature that embodies what it means to live on this planet, with loss and new beginnings. An ever-unfolding cycle as old as time itself.

Upon returning to my daily life, I felt grateful that I was able to watch the morass burn with such wonderful people. It made me realize the power that we have as a community in this world. I see everyone in ProstateCancer.net as part of my community. You are my friends, you are people I can rely on when the fire begins and I feel forlorn and afraid. Because everyone needs someone else to float with, in the waves of the ocean as the ashes fall, as Planet Earth spins us all in synchrony through her cycles. We are in this together.

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